Cervical Screening Awareness Week: How are smear tests being conducted during the pandemic?

‘Cervical screening is not considered high risk for passing on or getting coronavirus,’ Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust states

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, low attendance for cervical screenings has been a particular concern for Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

According to new research conducted by the charity, one in eight women say they feel they are less likely to attend their appointment now than they would have been before the pandemic, while 13 per cent believe it would be best to put off having their test at the moment.

For Cervical Screening Awareness Week, which is running from Monday 15 June until Sunday 21 June, The Independent has spoken to Jo’s Trust in order to answer the most pertinent questions about having a smear test amid the Covid-19 outbreak and to help anyone who is apprehensive to feel more at ease.

Here is everything you need to know about going for a smear test during the pandemic.

What are the main concerns women are feeling regarding smear tests during the pandemic?

Imogen Pinnell, health information manager at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, explains that while many women are still keen to attend their cervical screenings, “concern over risk of catching or spreading coronavirus are high”.

“We’re also speaking to many women who don’t know what to expect at their test, who feel that they need more information about how it all works now,” Pinnell says.

Joanne, a 52-year-old who lives near Epping in Essex, had a smear test in mid-May after the results from her previous screening, which took place two years ago, found abnormal cells.

Joanne tells The Independent that she was “a bit apprehensive” before going, but was reassured by her GP surgery that the procedure would be “as safe as we can possibly make it”.

Have any smear tests been cancelled in the UK?

Pinnell explains that in some countries and at various GP practises across the UK, some cervical screenings have been postponed or have reduced in number.

The Jo’s Trust representative acknowledges that this may be “confusing”, despite smear tests still being offered at various clinics.

When Joanne called up her GP surgery asking whether she needed to come in for a cervical screening, she assumed she would have to book her test “when everything’s back to normal”.

However, she was informed by her GP that she needed to come in, particularly because she should have undergone her screening in October 2019.

When a woman goes for her smear during the pandemic, are there any protective measures she needs to take first?

Before making your way to your GP surgery for your smear test, you will be given instructions for what you need to do when you arrive, Pinnell outlines.

This may involve waiting outside the building until a member of staff comes to collect you – which is what happened when Joanne went for her smear in May – or to use a certain door when entering and exiting the building.

Joanne was also instructed to wear gloves and to wear a face mask if she had one.

“Most GP surgeries are asking that you don’t take anyone with you to your appointment at the moment as well,” Pinnell adds.

What PPE (personal protective equipment) will the practitioner be wearing?

“The nurse or doctor doing your test should be wearing a mask, gloves and apron,” Pinnell states.

“If they have access to other types of PPE like a face visor or eye protection, they might be wearing this too.”

You can enquire about the PPE your nurse or doctor will be wearing during the screening by asking before or during your appointment.

For a procedure like a smear test, how can contact be kept to the absolute minimum?

Pinnell stresses that despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, “the smear test itself will be exactly the same – just with additional safety measures put in place”.

These safety measures will include your nurse or doctor wearing PPE.

“Following any instructions your GP surgery gives you is the best way to minimise contact and keep risk low,” Pinnell says.

Joanne recalls that she “didn’t feel vulnerable” during her smear test, despite feeling hesitant at first.

“The nurse had the full face mask and gloves and the place was very sterile and clean,” she says. “It was done really quickly within 10 minutes in a very safe environment.”

After going for a smear test, do women have to isolate for a certain period of time afterwards?

“No. Cervical screening is not considered high risk for passing on or getting coronavirus,” Pinnell states.

“Your nurse or doctor should be wearing PPE and implementing measures such as social distancing to make sure the risk is as low as possible. You can help keep the risk low by following any instructions your GP surgery give you.”

However, you should not go for your screening if you have symptoms for Covid-19 or have recently been in contact with someone with symptoms.

Are there currently any delays in the process?

While you should receive your results within four weeks, results may be delayed because the lab is processing many cervical screening tests, Pinnell explains.

Your nurse, doctor or GP surgery should be able to tell you when your results are due.

Despite assuming her results would be delayed, Joanne received hers around three weeks after her appointment, with the results indicating her cells were normal.

If a woman is informed that abnormal cells have been found, what is the next step?

As in the case of cervical screenings, follow-up appointments are also remaining the same during the pandemic, Pinnell says, with “additional measures being implemented to keep patients safe”.

“If HPV or cell changes are found at your test, you might be invited for colposcopy at a hospital,” the Jo’s Trust health information manager states.

“The hospital will also be putting in measures to keep you safe and will be able to let you know what these are before you attend.”

Has the main advice about going for a smear remained the same?

“Cervical screening remains a really important test and the best protection against cervical cancer,” Pinnell says. ”If you have been invited, it is safe to attend.”

However, if you are self-isolating, you are advised not to book an appointment for a cervical screening until your isolation period has ended.

Furthermore, if you are shielding, “you will need to think about your individual situation and safety, which you can discuss with your GP practice”, Pinnell explains.

For further advice, you can call the Jo’s Trust free helpline on 0800 802 8000. The opening times for the helpline are on the charity’s website.

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