Cervical cancer is declining at such a rate in Britain that it has now become one of the rarest of the main cancers.

Cervical cancer is declining at such a rate in Britain that it has now become one of the rarest of the main cancers.

The lifetime risk of developing cervical cancer is one in 126 compared with one in 10 for breast cancer, the commonest female cancer. Cervical cancer is now less common in women than bowel, lung, ovary or stomach cancer.

The decline, from 15.4 to 8.9 cases per 100,000 population between 1990 and 1996, a drop of 42 per cent, is revealed in a report from the Office of National Statistics published in its quarterly journal yesterday.

The fall is attributed to the success of a screening programme, introduced in some parts of the country in the Sixties but established nationally in 1988.

Despite a series of scandals involving the programme over the past decade, cervical screening was estimated to have saved the lives of 800 women under 55 in 1997. Dr Peter Goldblatt, the statistics office's chief medical statistician, said: "The decline is striking in the sense that it is an indication of what can be achieved by screening."

The figures show that the incidence of all cancers has increased by a half over the 25 years to 1996, partly because of improved detection and registration. However, the disease remains rare in the young. Only 6 per cent of all cancers in men and 9 per cent in women occurred in the under-45s. Childhood cancers, of which there were 1,300 cases, accounted for 0.6 per cent of the total.

In total, just over one person in 100 (1.1 per cent) who was alive on 1 January 1993 was living during the report period with a diagnosis of cancer made in the previous 10 years.There were more women with cancer alive than men because the commonest male cancer - of the lung - is more lethal than the commonest female cancer - of the breast. Two-thirds of women with breast cancer are alive five years after diagnosis compared with one in 20 of those with lung cancer.

Lung cancer among women is on an upward trend, while it is falling in men. Between 1993 and 1996 it rose by 5 per cent in women and fell by 5 per cent in men, reflecting the way that smoking had been taken up by women. Lung cancer rates reflect smoking habits a generation ago and smoking among men has been declining for 20 years. However, lung cancer is still twice as common in men as it is in women.

Dr Goldblatt said: "The continuing rise in the incidence of lung cancer among women is worrying and a cause for concern, especially as this looks set to continue. Also worrying is the fact that rising numbers of young women are continuing to smoke, and this is an issue that needs to be addressed."

The fastest rising cancer is that of the prostate, which overtook bowel cancer to become the second most common male cancer in 1993. The rise in recent years has been driven by the availability of a blood test for Prostate Specific Antigenindicating the possible presence of the cancer. As a result of improved detection, the death rate from prostate cancer fell in 1996 and 1997 after a consistent rise throughout the Eighties and early Nineties.