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Cervical cancer vaccine is having positive effect

It can be a devastating disease and it has cut short many lives, including, famously, those of Big Brother contestant Jade Goody, who died aged 27 in 2009, and Argentina's First Lady Eva Peron, who died in 1952 aged 33.

Increasingly, however, science is closing in on cervical cancer. It is extremely heartening that there has been a major reduction in cases of cervical abnormalities - potential precursors to cancer - among young women who have been vaccinated as schoolgirls against the types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause most cases of the disease.

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This highlights the importance of encouraging maximum take-up among 12- and 13-year-old girls, more than 90 per cent of whom have had the vaccination since 2008. Some parents have refused the opportunity to have their daughters immunised, perhaps seeing it as unnecessary, but they may feel differently in the light of the new figures, which demonstrate a 55 per cent reduction in pre-cancerous abnormalities among girls who had received three doses of it.

The programme appears to have had another great benefit too, in producing a slightly higher rate of attendance for smear tests among young women. However, more needs to be done to tackle a worrying decline in screening uptake in older age groups. Some 14 per cent fewer women aged 25-29 are having regular cervical smears now compared to a decade ago and 10 per cent fewer aged 55-59 are having them.

Cervical screening saves lives, pure and simple, by detecting any pre-cancerous cells and allowing for them to be treated to prevent cancer developing.

Some women simply do not realise how critically important the smear test is, hence their failure to attend screening; others are afraid or embarrassed about the procedure, straightforward though it is. Some fail to make an appointment because they forget or struggle to find the time, while others mistakenly believe it is a test to detect cancer rather than pre-cancerous abnormalities, and stay away out of fear.

That appointment with the surgery nurse, however, could turn out to be the most important 10 minutes of their lives. In 2012, nearly 300 Scottish women were diagnosed with cervical cancer and more than 100 died of the disease. Were it not for the cervical screening programme, the numbers would have been higher.

Health boards must do what they can to improve attendance. Social marketing appears to be working in the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area, where a campaign has produced a 20 per cent increase in attendance in a month, but it may be that, as with other types of awareness-raising campaign, such as that targeting seasonal drink-driving, the exercise has to be repeated regularly.

There are some forms of cancer that are very hard to detect until they are advanced and thereafter hard to treat. Cervical cancer, by contrast, is a disease that can often be prevented. Vaccination and regular smear tests are both effective in helping prevent the illness, and should be whole-heartedly promoted and embraced.

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