COVID-19 delivers blow to cervical cancer screening
A speculum instrument is seen up close here.
Women coming for screening halved in 2020; slight uptick for 2021

The combined blow of the novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc on cervical cancer screening programmes, which are already sparse in low- and middle-income nations.

Screening through pap smears is key to the prevention and early detection of the disease, however, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), cervical cancer remains the fourth most common cancer type globally among women and one of the most deadly, responsible for killing more than 300,000 women in 2018.

Locally, it is among the top three related cancer deaths. The Jamaica Cancer Society (JCS) says COVID-19 cut its screening numbers in half as it halted its outreach programmes and due to fear of contracting the virus, the number of women coming to the clinic fell.

Sheron Hall, nurse in charge at JCS, told Your Health Your Wealth that before the before the pandemic, JCS had a walk-in system, which was switched to appointment based to manage traffic at the site and maintain patient and staff safety.

In addition, Hall said clients were hesitant to come into the public space, which saw a fall-off of 50 per cent in the number of women screened for cervical cancer.

The cancer society screened 9,634 in 2019 and 4,860 women in 2020. In 2021, they screened a little over 6,300 women.

“Last year it was much better. To compare to 2019, in 2020 there was a 50 per cent reduction and 2021 was about a 30 per cent increase in the women compared to 2020,” Hall said. “This was mainly fear of the virus and us having to limit the number of women coming into the clinic.

She added: “We have not had any outreach since March 2020 as we had to protect our staff and we have to do sanitation whenever we go out and limit the number of people in a specific area. We had to curtail the outreach aspect of our programme since the pandemic and we have not resumed that as yet.”

But Hall is imploring women to practise the COVID-19 safety measures and still do their pap smears as cervical cancer is preventable once abnormal cells are caught early. She also encouraged women fearful of a pap smear to put aside the cowardice and come in.

“It is a preventable cancer and once you come in and get the pap smear done, you reduce the risk of getting cancer of the cervix. Fear is one of the main drawbacks and not so much the reports, but the actual test. There is a myth that it's a painful procedure and we are pulling down their womb. We have to get rid of those rumours. The people who are giving them these false rumours have never done a pap smear. Even if you have a little discomfort, that is nothing compared to getting cancer. No one should die of cervical cancer as it is one of those when caught early, can be cured,” Hall said.

Sheron Hall, nurse in charge at the Jamaica Cancer Society, says there was a falloffof 50 per cent in the number of women screened for cervical cancer in 2020.
BY KIMBERLEY HIBBERT Associate editor – News/Health

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