Cervical cancer screening

Temporary pause of some population screening programmes

Some population screening programmes in Northern Ireland have been paused for the time being. This decision has been made, in agreement with the Health Minister, so that Health and Social Care (HSC) staff and resources can be redeployed in response to COVID-19 and to reduce the risk of exposure to the corona virus for the public and HSC staff.

This position will be kept under review, but is likely to last for up to 3 months in the first instance.

The following screening programmes are now paused:

  • Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm screening and surveillance monitoring;
  • Routine breast screening;
  • Bowel cancer screening;
  • Cervical screening; and
  • Routine diabetic eye screening and surveillance monitoring.

Screening will continue to be offered to people who require:

  • Higher risk breast screening.  Although all eligible women will be being screened at the higher risk screening unit in Antrim Area Hospital (previously women who required mammography only were able to have their screening at their local breast screening unit).
  • Diabetic eye screening for pregnant women (sight saving laser treatments and urgent intravitreal injections will continue to be provided)
  • Antenatal infections screening.
  • Newborn blood spot screening.
  • Newborn hearing screening.  However, this programme will be focused on completing screening prior to discharge from maternity units only.

FAQs

I’ve already made an appointment for my cervical screening (smear) test at my GP Practice. What should I do?

Please contact your GP for advice. 

I have an appointment at colposcopy for further assessment or treatment. Should I still attend?

Colposcopy clinics are still being held where possible at the moment. Should you not wish to attend or would like to discuss your attendance in further detail, please contact the clinic.

However, those considered to be in the extremely vulnerable group, those who have, or had symptoms of COVID-19 and are self-isolating and those who are currently self-isolating due to a household member having symptoms are advised not to attend. An alternative appointment may be made by contacting the clinic.

I have already been for my cervical screening test but have not received my result.

Tests for people who have recently been screened will continue to be processed, results will be sent to your GP and a referral made if necessary. If you do need further assessment, you'll receive a letter from your Trust explaining what happens next.

We know a delay to your cervical screening may cause you anxiety, especially if you require more frequent screening due to previous results. But remember, cervical screening is designed to stop cervical cancer before it starts.

The test checks the cells from your cervix (neck of the womb) for human papillomavirus (HPV). If HPV is found, we then look at the same sample for cell changes.

HPV or cell changes take many years to develop into cervical cancer, not months.   Less than 1% of cervical screening tests find cervical cancer, even amongst those who require more regular screening.

What should I do as I wait for my screening appointment?

While cervical screening in Northern Ireland is temporarily paused due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, it’s important to be symptom aware.

You should report any symptoms such as unusual discharge or bleeding to your doctor as soon as possible. This includes bleeding after sex, between periods or after the menopause. These are usually caused by something other than cancer but it’s important to have them checked.

Are there risks associated with delaying my cervical screening test?

Cervical screening is not a test for cancer, but for changes to cells in your cervix which, without treatment, can sometimes develop into cervical cancer.  These cell changes usually take many years to develop, so it is unlikely that a short delay in having a cervical screening test will affect most individual outcomes.

However if you have any symptoms, such as;

• vaginal bleeding after sex, between periods or after the menopause

• vaginal discharge that is not normal for you

• persistent back or tummy pains, or pain during sex

Please speak to someone at your GP surgery, even if you have had a normal screening test.

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The aim of the cervical cancer screening programme is to reduce the number of women who develop cervical cancer and the number of women who die from it.

It tries to do this by testing as many women as possible, examining the test results and referring the women for further treatment if any early warning signs are present.

Although a cervical screening programme has been in place in Northern Ireland for over 20 years, we are constantly working to improve the quality of the programme and ensure it is as effective as possible. During this time, women aged 20-64 have been invited for screening every five years. However, as further research has been carried out, it has become increasingly evident that screening women under the age of 25 is likely to do more harm than good.

The screening test (often known as a smear test) looks for abnormal changes in the cells which line the cervix. These abnormal changes may go on to develop into cancer if left untreated. However, in some cases, particularly young women, the body’s immune system will return the cells to normal by themselves, rendering them harmless.

Cervical cancer is very rare in women under 25, with only one or two cases occurring each year in Northern Ireland. Young women who are screened are more likely to have an abnormal screening test result and undergo further tests and treatments that they do not need. Unnecessary treatment can cause significant anxiety and, in some cases, lead to a higher risk of premature birth in future pregnancies.

In light of this evidence, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety announced in July 2010 that the age range and interval for the cervical screening programme would change from January 2011. The new policy means that women aged 25-49 will be invited for screening every three years, and those aged 50-64 every five years.