DR PHILIPPA KAYE: It is not ageist to disclaim smear exams to over-65s

Are smear exams ageist? That’s what Mariella Frostrup claimed final week concerning the NHS cervical screening programme, which is obtainable to ladies between the ages of 25 and 64.

It’s designed to select up adjustments that would point out an elevated threat of cervical most cancers – a illness that may nearly all the time be handled efficiently with early intervention however nonetheless kills tons of of girls in Britain every year.

Writing in a newspaper article, the writer and broadcaster – who’s 61 and has lately had her last smear take a look at – decried the ‘ageist’ and ‘outdated’ coverage which means ladies aged 65 and over are not routinely supplied smear exams.

She described this as one other instance of ‘medical misogyny’ by the NHS, and added that she needs to start out a marketing campaign to see older ladies lined by the screening plan.

Stock photo of Mariella Frostrup, UK-based journalist and television presenter

Stock picture of Mariella Frostrup, UK-based journalist and tv presenter

Mariella Frostrup decried the 'ageist' and 'outdated' policy that means women aged 65 and over are no longer routinely offered smear tests

Mariella Frostrup decried the ‘ageist’ and ‘outdated’ coverage which means ladies aged 65 and over are not routinely supplied smear exams

Dr Phillipa Kaye (pictured) is a GP. She believes smear tests will do more harm than good

Dr Phillipa Kaye (pictured) is a GP. She believes smear exams will do extra hurt than good

As a GP with a particular curiosity in ladies’s well being and as an envoy for Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, it caught my consideration. I like Mariella very a lot, we work collectively on the charity Wellbeing of Women however I’m afraid we disagree about this one – screening ladies over 65 might find yourself doing extra hurt than good.

My view is that if we need to eradicate cervical most cancers within the UK by 2040, because the Government has pledged, we have to focus our efforts on making the present programme nearly as good as it might presumably be. That means encouraging all eligible ladies to attend each smear take a look at when invited – which does not occur – and doing every part we will to spice up the uptake of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine amongst 12 and 13-year-olds.

Let me clarify.


A smear take a look at detects irregular cells on the cervix, which is the doorway to the uterus from the vagina.

Removing these cells can stop cervical most cancers.

Most take a look at outcomes come again clear, nonetheless, one in 20 ladies present irregular adjustments to the cells of their cervix.

In some instances, these should be eliminated or can develop into cancerous.

Cervical most cancers mostly impacts sexually-active ladies aged between 30 and 45. 

In the UK, the NHS Cervical Screening Programme invitations ladies aged 25-to-49 for a smear each three years, these aged 50 to 64 each 5 years, and ladies over 65 in the event that they haven’t been screened since 50 or have beforehand had irregular outcomes.

Women should be registered with a GP to be invited for a take a look at. 

In the US, exams begin when ladies flip 21 and are carried out each three years till they attain 65.

Changes in cervical cells are sometimes attributable to the human papilloma virus (HPV), which may be transmitted throughout intercourse.



Most cervical most cancers instances are attributable to HPV, which may be sexually transmitted and can be linked to penile and anal cancers, and a few head and neck cancers. The virus is frequent and most of the people develop antibodies to it naturally, which means it’s cleared by the immune system. But for about one in ten ladies, high-risk kinds can linger and trigger adjustments to cells within the neck of the womb, which may develop into cancerous.

The screening take a look at, which includes inserting a speculum into the vagina and taking a pattern of cells from the cervix, used to examine for the presence of irregular cells which had the potential to show into most cancers. Since 2020, it has as a substitute appeared for HPV.

If the virus is discovered, the pattern is then examined for irregular cells, and ladies who’ve them are referred for a colposcopy, which includes inserting a skinny microscope into the vagina to take an in depth have a look at the cervix and examine for pre-cancerous abnormalities.

The abnormalities may be handled and generally eliminated throughout this or a further process – so screening can stop ladies from creating most cancers. About 5,000 lives are thought to have been saved by the screening programme.

Since 2008 we’ve additionally been vaccinating 12 and 13-year-old ladies towards HPV (and, since 2019, boys too). The vaccine is a game-changer. Data exhibits it might cut back the chance of cervical most cancers by about 87 per cent.

Rates of the illness have already declined by 25 per cent for the reason that early Nineteen Nineties. But ladies born earlier than 1991 haven’t benefited from it and, like every vaccine, it isn’t 100 per cent efficient, so all ladies ought to have common screenings.

Women are first invited once they flip 25 as a result of analysis has discovered that abnormalities detected earlier can resolve naturally, and treating ladies might put them via pointless procedures.

And they cease at 64 for an excellent purpose, too. Partly, ladies are much less in danger – these over 65 are lower than half as more likely to get the illness than these of their early 30s. But it is also as a result of it takes a very long time for a lingering HPV an infection to show into cervical most cancers.

As obstetrician and gynaecologist Adeola Olaitan, a trustee at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, explains: ‘It may take ten to twenty years for HPV to show into most cancers. That means if ladies have been going recurrently for smear exams, and significantly if they’ve had detrimental outcomes after the age of fifty, they’re extraordinarily unlikely to finish up with cervical most cancers which is able to trigger them issues or want remedy throughout their lifetime.’ Another vitally necessary consideration, based on Theresa Freeman-Wang, one of many nation’s main specialists in colposcopy and cervical most cancers, is to steadiness profit versus potential hurt and bear in mind that screening older ladies might trigger them to have pointless invasive procedures.

She says: ‘As ladies become older, screening turns into extra uncomfortable as a result of the shortage of oestrogen causes vaginal dryness, so it may be troublesome to get an excellent pattern. And whenever you get one, it might then be technically tougher to evaluate it – if ladies aren’t on HRT, the cells can seem irregular even when they don’t seem to be.’

Women are first invited when they turn 25 because research has found that abnormalities detected earlier can resolve naturally (stock photo)

Women are first invited once they flip 25 as a result of analysis has discovered that abnormalities detected earlier can resolve naturally (inventory picture) 

About 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the UK, most commonly between the ages of 30 and 34 (stock photo)

About 3,200 ladies are recognized with cervical most cancers yearly within the UK, mostly between the ages of 30 and 34 (inventory picture) 

That means medical doctors could carry out a colposcopy to examine for indicators of abnormalities, which may trigger vital stress. But these procedures are additionally troublesome to carry out in older ladies as a result of the zone on the neck of the womb the place the abnormalities are discovered recedes with age, making it more durable to see.

‘You can find yourself in a state of affairs the place you possibly can’t assess the world,’ says Ms Freeman-Wang. ‘That lady may then be supplied extra remedy, akin to a extra invasive surgical biopsy, to examine we have not missed something.

‘After this, if ladies are post-menopausal, there’s an opportunity the neck of the womb can heal shut, which prevents additional assessments. In that state of affairs we’d want to speak a few hysterectomy {that a} lady would not have wanted if we hadn’t began down this path.’

For Ms Freeman-Wang, extra proof is required to evaluate whether or not screening over 65s could be of extra profit than hurt, particularly if they’ve recurrently attended cervical screening. She provides: ‘The nervousness I’ve is that we is perhaps over-treating ladies who won’t ever be at any vital threat. It’s not about misogyny or ageism.

‘I do not know the reply. We want to search out cervical most cancers in older ladies, however we’re not but at some extent the place we will suggest extending the screening restrict.’ So what of the ladies every year who’re recognized with cervical most cancers after 65?

In the absence of screening, most may have it picked up after creating signs that embody sudden bleeding, adjustments to vaginal discharge, ache throughout intercourse or unexplained pelvic or decrease again ache. These ought to by no means be ignored, no matter your age, and needs to be checked by a GP.

About 3,200 ladies are recognized with cervical most cancers yearly within the UK, mostly between the ages of 30 and 34.

Rates fall after this level till ladies attain 65 – simply after screening stops – when there’s a slight uptick. Cancer Research UK’s figures present 580 instances a 12 months are in ladies over 65.

Some of those ladies, significantly these of their 80s, may have had solely 15 years of screening (the programme started in 1988) and should by no means have been examined for HPV, resulting in a later-life analysis.

Some instances could also be linked to ladies residing longer, so there’s extra alternative for undetected HPV to show into most cancers.

Rising divorce charges might have a job too, as ladies could have new sexual companions later in life, exposing them to an infection.

In 2018, in a submission to the National Screening Committee, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust pointed this out, including: ‘There is a necessity for ongoing scientific analysis to completely confirm threat and advantages to establish the perfect pathway for these over 64.’

The charity nonetheless helps this name for extra analysis, as do I.

But these instances in older ladies may additionally be linked to them not attending their last screenings.

Some do not flip up as a result of they consider, wrongly, that being menopausal means they’re not in danger. Others cease coming as a result of adjustments to the genitals and reproductive system imply they discover it more and more uncomfortable. We might help by prescribing an oestrogen gel within the weeks earlier than a smear take a look at, utilizing a smaller speculum through the examination or by permitting you to insert the speculum your self.

One trial can be whether or not self-testing – utilizing a easy swab equipment at residence – may assist enhance the numbers participating. This is essential as knowledge exhibits screening charges are falling – simply two-thirds of girls attend recurrently and in additional disadvantaged areas it is fewer than 50 per cent.

We should additionally encourage uptake of the HPV vaccine which, like different childhood vaccinations, remains to be considerably beneath pre-pandemic ranges.

So relatively than extending the screening programme as Mariella Frostrup suggests, the precedence needs to be making the present programme higher.

That means encouraging ladies to maintain up-to-date with their smear exams, and to ensure dad and mom perceive the advantages of getting their youngsters vaccinated towards HPV. These issues will shield all ladies – not simply now however in a long time to return.

As Athena Lamnisos, from the Eve Appeal charity, places it: ‘There is not robust proof to display screen after 65, however there’s proof that common screening out of your 20s to your mid-60s will shield you.’

lFor recommendation and assist go to or name the charity’s helpline on 0808 802 8000.