Despite repeated scandals involving mis-read smears, the national screening service is saving hundreds of lives a year. While women cannot avoid all risk of the disease by attending for a regular smear every three to five years, the figures show that, for all its faults, screening is effective.
Dr Mike Quinn and colleagues from the Office of National Statistics say that the proportion of women being screened rose to 85 per in 1988 when a national call and recall system was introduced. Up to that point, although screening had been carried out for 20 years, it had failed to reduce deaths.
Deaths had anyway been falling by 1.5 per cent a year since the 1950s but after 1987 the rate of fall trebled. By 1997 the number of deaths was 1,150, down from 1,800 in 1987, suggesting that the screening programme may have saved 800 lives of women aged 25 to 54 in that year. Fifty years ago, cervical cancer claimed 2,500 lives a year.
The authors, writing in the British Medical Journal, say the annual cost of the screening programme is pounds 132m, four times the cost of the breast screening programme, which aims to save 1,250 lives a year in the target group of women aged 55 to 69.
"Costs of screening could be reduced substantially, with little loss in effectiveness, by screening all women every five years ... and by not continuing to screen women over 50 who have had two or three consecutive normal results."Reuse content