The number of older women who attend a cervical screening test has dipped to a 16-year low, a charity has warned.
More than a quarter (27.3%) of women aged 60 to 64 fail to attend screenings - the lowest level since 1997, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust said.
The charity said it is particularly “worried” about the low uptake of older women attending screenings as the most recent figures show that cervical cancer incidence in this age group has increased by 29% in just one year.
The warning comes after research published last week showed those who skip screening are six times more likely to end up with cervical cancer.
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust also raised concerns about younger women who are failing to attend screenings.
The charity said that despite the fact that cervical cancer incidence among women under 35 is at its second highest since 1996, one in three women aged 25 to 29 do not follow up screening invitations.
A poll conducted by the charity, which has been released to mark Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, found that only 16% of women identified non-attendance of screening as a risk factor for the disease.
One in seven of the 2,000 women aged 25 to 29 and 60 to 64 who were surveyed believed screening was a test that checked the health of the womb. And one in 10 of those aged 25 to 29 thought a screening test was for sexually transmitted diseases.
The charity said it also found a “lack of understanding” about the causes of cervical cancer.
While the majority of cervical cancers are caused by persistent human papillomavirus (HPV) infection - which causes changes to the cervical cells - 54% of those polled failed to link the virus to the development of cervical cancer.
Robert Music, chief executive for Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “The study shows a clear need to educate women on the causes of cervical cancer and the purpose of cervical screening.
“Currently just under 3,000 UK women are diagnosed each year and if those who are delaying their screening continue to misunderstand the disease and how it can be prevented, then we are concerned that screening uptake will continue to fall and incidence will start to rise.
“Already we are seeing an increase in incidence for older women and we are very worried that the number of diagnoses amongst women in their late twenties will also go up.” He added: “Annually one in five women in the UK will fail to attend cervical screening.
“Ultimately our message to women who are overdue their next screening would be to seek support and advice if they have any concerns and make it a priority to attend.”
In England and Northern Ireland, women between the ages of 25 and 64 are invited for screening, with those aged 25 to 49 screened every three years and those aged 50 to 64 screened every five years.
In Scotland, screening is routinely offered every three years to women aged between 20 and 60. This will be extended to the age of 64 from 2015.
In Wales, women between 20 and 64 are screened every three years.
The charity’s new Put Yourself In the Picture campaign aims to encourage women to attend regular screening.
Are you able to Speak out Safely?
Sign our petition to put pressure on your trust to support an open and transparent NHS