The number of women being screened for cervical cancer is at its lowest level since 2020, new data has revealed, with the proportion of younger women taking up appointments also falling sharply.
NHS England is now urging all people invited for screening to take up the offer after figures showed three in 10 of those eligible do not.
Women are invited for cervical screening every three to five years depending on their age, but will be seen more frequently if they have human papillomavirus (HPV), a group of viruses which can be transmitted through sexual contact and cause no symptoms.
During the appointment, a small sample of cells is collected from the cervix and checked for certain types of HPV.
The vast majority – 99.7% – of cervical cancers are caused by 13 high-risk types of the virus.
Data released by NHS England showed 4.62 million women aged 25 to 64 were due to be screened and invited for a test last year, with 3.43 million attending appointments.
According to the figures, of the women aged 25 to 64 eligible for cervical screening, 68.7% were tested within the recommended timeframe.
In those aged 25 to 49, some 65.8% were screened within 3.5 years.
The figure has steadily declined from 70.2% in 2020, to 68.0% in 2021 and 67.6% in 2022.
Of those aged 50 to 64, some 74.4% were screened within 5.5 years, the lowest proportion since 2013.
Nicola Smith, senior health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “The cervical screening programme saves thousands of lives every year in the UK by preventing cancer and helping to stop the disease in its tracks. We encourage women and people with a cervix, such as trans men and non-binary people assigned female at birth, to take part.
“Barriers to participation can often lead to inequalities in diagnosis and treatment, so we support targeted action to increase awareness and widen access to this potentially life-saving programme.
“Some people can find cervical screening uncomfortable but there are ways to make your appointment work better for you. When booking, ask for a longer time slot, so you can speak through any concerns you may have. And remember, you are in control of your appointment.”
Earlier this month, NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard pledged to wipe out cervical cancer by 2040.
The NHS is now ramping up efforts to vaccinate women against HPV in England, as well as encouraging more to come forward for cervical screening.
It comes after Australia said it wanted to be the first country in the world to eradicate the disease by 2035, although it is understood countries such as Sweden may get there first.
A vaccination against HPV was introduced in the UK in 2008.
It is recommended for children aged 12 to 13 years old and people at higher risk from HPV, such as gay and bisexual men under the age of 45.
However, officials said wiping out the disease relies on people coming forward for screening and jabs.
Steve Russell, chief delivery officer and national director for vaccinations and screening for NHS England, said: “We know that it’s possible for the NHS to eliminate cervical cancer within the next two decades, but it relies on millions of people continuing to come forward for screening and vaccinations every year.
“The NHS is doing everything we can to achieve our ambition by making it as easy as possible to make appointments, with the latest figures showing the NHS arranged cervical screening for over 3.4 million women last year.”
Dr Kiren Collison, a GP and NHS England’s deputy medical director for primary care, added: “Getting the HPV vaccination and attending screening is the best way of preventing cervical cancer, which is why it’s important that you book an appointment when invited.
“I’d also encourage anyone who has previously received an invitation and may have been unable to attend at the time, not to wait until you get another invitation before contacting your GP practice. You can still book a cervical screening appointment even if you were invited weeks, months or years ago.”