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Everything you need to know about DIY smear tests

Posted by
Moya Crockett
Published
A doctor holding a cervical swab

Some women in London will be able to access at-home smear tests later this year as part of a groundbreaking pilot scheme. Here are all the key facts. 

In recent years, medical professionals and cancer awareness campaigners have sounded the alarm about plummeting smear test rates in the UK. Last autumn, it was revealed that cervical screening rates in the UK were at their lowest in two decades, with around a quarter of those eligible ignoring their invitation for a smear test – a figure that increased to one in three for 25- to 29-year-olds. Worryingly, a 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 in the UK are diagnosed with the illness each year, it’s vitally important that more people start attending screenings.

In an attempt to encourage more women to get tested for signs of cervical cancer, a pilot scheme offering DIY smear tests will be rolled out in some parts of England later this year. The self-sampling kits, which will be available to some women in north and east London, will test for the human papillomavirus (HPV) – an extremely common virus that causes 99% of cervical cancer cases.

The scheme is being developed by King’s College London alongside University College London Hospitals Cancer Collaborative, which has been commissioned by the NHS to improve cancer outcomes. Below, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about DIY smear tests. 

How do DIY smear tests work? 

The DIY smear test kit will contain a vaginal swab, which 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.

Some women trialling at-home smear test kits in other countries have compared the experience to using a tampon, reports BBC News. A recent report in the British Medical Journal also cites evidence showing that “self-collected samples are as accurate as clinician collected samples”.

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The chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust said that self-testing kits could significantly boost smear testing rates. “We know from our research that there is a huge appetite for self-testing and want to see it introduced to the NHS screening programme as soon as possible,” Robert Music told The Guardian.

“Countries such as Australia and Denmark, which are already offering self-testing, are seeing fantastic results in terms of more women being screened and more cancers being prevented or diagnosed at an early stage.

“For those who find screening difficult for a wide range of psychological and physical reasons, it could be a game-changer.”

Who is eligible for the DIY smear test pilot scheme? 

No one yet – and only a select group of people will be able to try out the DIY kits later this year. Women 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 six months.

The organisers of the pilot scheme hope to eventually offer self-sampling kits to 22,000 women. 

Why are DIY smear tests only being offered to women in London?

Shoreditch, 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 female 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 begin in September 2019. It has not yet been confirmed if or when DIY smear tests will be made available to women 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 Images 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, politics and psychology. Carrying a bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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