NHS review calls for clearer cervical cancer guidance for lesbians

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An NHS review on cervical cancer has said that more should be done to raise awareness of cervical cancer in lesbians.

Historically, it was believed that the HPV virus, one of the causes of cervical cancer, could only be transmitted through sexual contact with men.

However, research has found that it can be transmitted through sexual contact between women as 80 per cent of lesbians are estimated to have slept with a man at some point in their lives.

A 2008 Stonewall survey on health found that one in five lesbian and bisexual women were told that they did not need a smear test. It was estimated that 37,000 lesbian and bisexual women had been refused access to screening, despite requesting it.

The NHS Cervical Screening Programme 2009 annual review looked at the “myths” around lesbians and cervical cancer.

Dr Julie Fish, a lecturer at De Montfort University, was commissioned to research how likely lesbians are to suffer cervical cancer and what information should be given to them.

She said that a 2001 American study found the HPV virus present in 19 per cent of samples from lesbians.

Dr Fish said: “The main problem concerns mixed messages. It is wrongly assumed that HPV is only transmitted by men. This view often prevails among lesbians, practice nurses and GPs.

“Although some lesbians may never have had a relationship with a man, there is a strong chance a partner may have, at which point they could have contracted the infection. Any exchange of bodily fluids can pass the HPV between two people. So a woman can contract the infection from her girlfriend.”

She cited evidence showing that while lesbians were not actively barred from cervical cancer screening, they were sometimes unintentionally discouraged by health workers who asked questions about male partners.

Samantha Days, a community services manager from the Lesbian and Gay Foundation, was also cited in the report.

Days said her organisation had since an increase in cervical cancer enquiries since TV star Jade Goody died from the disease.

She said: “We always encourage callers to go and be screened, and also suggest they challenge doctors or nurses who imply that it isn’t necessary. It can be a problematic issue because sexuality is not an easy thing to talk about in an appointment. A lot depends on the relationship between the individual and their nurse or doctor.”

Dr Fish added: “Younger women in particular spoke of a lack of information. Lesbian groups have found that advice on sexual health is popularly requested because the information simply isn’t out there, particularly when compared to material available for gay men. It is not easily accessible and tends not to be well distributed.”

She recommended easier access to information targeted at lesbians, which has been developed by the NHS into a national screening leaflet.

The leaflet can be viewed here