Some patients in London will now be able to access at-home smear tests as part of a groundbreaking pilot scheme. Here are all the key facts.
More than 31,000 women and people with cervixes in London are being offered at-home DIY smear test kits on the NHS for the first time, in a move experts hope will boost screening numbers.
The YouScreen study will run until December 2021 in partnership with King’s College London. It will see self-swab human papillomavirus (HPV) tests sent to people aged between 25-64 who are 15 months overdue for a check and live in the London boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Islington, Newham and Tower Hamlets, where appointment attendance is currently low.
This is the first time such tests have been trialled in England, but self-sampling is already offered in countries such as Denmark and Australia. Research has shown that 99% of people are able to carry out a self-swab test effectively.
Although there are currently no concrete plans to roll-out the self-test kits across the rest of the UK, if this study succeeds in improving cervical screening participation, the scheme may become part of a long-term solution to the problem.
Dr Anita Lim, who is part of the King’s College Team leading the study, described self-sampling as a “game-changer” that could make screening easier and help people overcome the “variety of barriers” which stop them from attending potentially life-saving smear test appointments.
“Women who don’t come for regular screening are at the highest risk of developing cervical cancer, so it is crucial that we find ways like this to make screening easier and protect women from what is a largely preventable cancer,” Lim added.
In recent years, medical professionals and cancer awareness campaigners have sounded the alarm about plummeting smear test rates in the UK.
Although smear test attendance rates rose a little for the first time in five years in England in 2018, the coronavirus pandemic has led to many people skipping tests for fears of catching Covid-19, while others have had them cancelled or delayed. And that’s not forgetting the fact that even before the pandemic when rates were rising, one in four eligible women were still not attending their tests.
Worryingly, a previous survey by the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found that more than 60% of women aged 25 to 35 were unaware they were in the highest-risk group for the disease.
There are many understandable reasons why someone might feel alarmed at the prospect of having a smear test, from past sexual trauma to body image issues. But given that proper screening prevents 75% of cervical cancers, and more than 3,000 women and people with cervixes in the UK are diagnosed with the illness each year, it’s vitally important that more people start attending screenings.
Below, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about the new DIY tests.
How do DIY smear tests work?
The self-swab kits are not the same as a traditional smear test, which involves a nurse or doctor using an instrument called a speculum to gently open the vagina before using a small brush to take a sample of cells from the cervix.
Instead, the at-home kits will contain a vaginal swab that looks similar to a long cotton bud. Users will collect a sample of their cervical cells by inserting the swab into their vagina, before sending the swab to a lab for testing using a freepost envelope or box also included in the kit.
If HPV (an extremely common virus that causes 99% of cervical cancer cases) is detected, users will then be invited to attend their GP practice for a traditional smear test as a follow-up.
Some women trialling at-home kits in other countries have compared the experience to using a tampon, reports BBC News. A report in the British Medical Journal also cites evidence showing that “self-collected samples are as accurate as clinician collected samples”.
Kate Sanger, head of policy and communications at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said that the new tests could help to make smear testing more accessible.
“Self-sampling removes so many of the challenges to cervical screening and through our research we know it is very much wanted by women,” she said.
“It has been fantastic to be part of this study and we hope it leads to change that will save lives and the trauma a cervical cancer diagnosis can bring.”
Who is eligible for the DIY smear test pilot scheme?
Currently, only a select group of people will be able to try out the DIY kits in 2021. Women and people with cervixes aged 25-64 who live in north or east London will be invited to take part in the pilot scheme at participating GP surgeries, if they are eligible for a smear test but have missed their appointment by at least 15 months, or attend a GP appointment for another reason and are at least six months overdue.
The organisers of the pilot scheme hope to eventually offer self-sampling kits to 31,000 women.
Why are DIY smear tests only being offered to women in London?
London was chosen for the pilot scheme because it consistently has the lowest average cervical cancer screening rates in England. Just 64.7% of eligible Londoners have smear tests when they are supposed to, compared to over 70% nationally.
When will DIY smear tests be available?
The pilot scheme for self-sampling HPV tests will run from February to December 2021. It has not yet been confirmed if or when DIY smear tests will be made available to women and people with cervixes across England on the NHS.
Where can I get a DIY smear test in the meantime?
You can already buy HPV home-testing kits online: Superdrug offers one for £48. However, they’re not generally available for free on the NHS yet.
If you have received an invitation for a smear test with your local GP and haven’t yet booked one, it’s highly recommended that you do so as soon as possible. Worries and concerns are normal, but they shouldn’t prevent you from attending a screening.
Still feeling anxious? We put the most common questions about smear tests to a doctor – and her answers were truly reassuring. You can check them out here.
Images: Getty and King’s College London/YouScreen/NHS