Health chiefs reject lowering smear test age

Sorcha Glenn.
Sorcha Glenn.

Health chiefs have rejected calls for the cervical screening age to be lowered following a Derry’s woman’s death from cancer aged just 23.

Despite a mounting campaign in Derry, and a formal approach to Health Minister Jim Wells being made by Derry City Council this week, a statement from his department makes it clear that they have no intention of changing the age limit from 25 to 20.

Jim Wells.

Jim Wells.

In the months before her death, Sorcha Glenn had campaigned for such a move after she was initially told that smear tests aren’t routinely done on women her age.

Following Sorcha’s funeral this week, thousands upon thousands of people have signed petitions and kept her campaign alive through dedicated social media pages, with the Team Sorcha Facebook page alone attracting over 10,000 likes in a matter of days.

In a statement to the Derry Journal however, a spokeswoman for the Department for Health said the age at which cervical screening starts was informed by the “best available scientific evidence.”

She said: “Any screening programme can do harm as well as good.

“The benefit of screening in women aged 20 to 24 does not outweigh its harms. This is why it is recommended not to screen women under 25.”

She said that 90% of schoolgirls in Northern Ireland were receiving the HPV vaccination, which is seen as vital in preventing 70% of cervical cancers.

The spokeswoman said smear tests for women under 25 would lead to many becoming unnecessarily worried over abnormalities that are likely to be harmless, and urged that the policy currently in place was in line with other EU countries and recommendations made by the UK National Screening Committee.

She claimed cervical cancer was “rare” in young women, adding: “Screening women under the age of 25 means that a high number of them will be told that their results are abnormal, as cervical abnormalities are common in women under the age of 25. Most of these abnormalities will regress over time and never progress into cancer. However, detection of such abnormalities would cause unnecessary anxiety and lead to further investigations and in many cases to treatment that is not needed.

“Treating cervical abnormalities can lead to premature births in subsequent pregnancies.”

Derry City Councillors have unanimously backed a proposal from SDLP Councillor Angela Dobbins to call on Minister Wells to lower the smear test age threshold to 20 following Sorcha’s death.

Commenting on the issue meanwhile in the wake of Sorcha’s death, Chairman of the British Medical Association, Derry GP Dr Tom Black, said: “The loss of this young woman is a terrible tragedy and it is hoped that such sad occurrences will become even rarer in the future through the HPV vaccination programme.

“This has been in place since 2008 and by 2015, 90% of 20 to 25-year-olds will be protected from the majority of cases of cervical cancer.”