Cervical screening, such as the regular programme provided by the NHS, is a very successful way of detecting the early signs of cervical cancer (Kitchener, Castle, & Cox, 2006). The NHS programme screens around 3.5 million (Moss et al., 2003) to 4 million (Karnon et al., 2004) women annually and it is estimated that this prevents between 1100 and 3900 cases of cervical cancer a year (Moss et al., 2003).
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In recent years a new way of screening the cervical samples has been developed. This is referred to as liquid based cytology rather than conventional cytology. However, there has been considerable debate over the costs and benefits of the new technology, as will be examined below.
Cervical cancer is linked to human papillomaviruses (HPV), a family of common sexually transmitted viruses (Eifel, Berek, & Markman, 2011). It is believed to be fairly common for women to be exposed to HPV viral cells but usually these are readily cleared by their immune response (Bosch & Iftner, 2005). However, in some instances women can develop an HPV infection following exposure to viral cells. The infection can seem largely asymptomatic but actually causes the abnormal multiplication of cells in the cervix, leading to warts, lesions or benign tumours and, if the infection persists, it can cause cervical cancer (Bosch & Iftner, 2005; Eifel et al., 2011). In fact, HPV is believed to be the main, perhaps even the sole, cause of cervical cancer. The NHS cervical screening programme is available to women aged between 25 and 64 years of age and involves taking a regular swab or smear of cells from inside their cervix (Moss et al., 2003). These are then sent to a pathology laboratory where they are screened by a cytologist for any abnormalities associated with HPV. In the absence of any abnormalities women between the ages of 25 and 50 years are advised to return for testing every three years, and those aged between 50 and 64, every five years (Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2013). The 2013 national statistics for the UK screening programme indicated that 78.3% of eligible women were up to date with their smear screening (Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2013).
The focus of this essay is on the process that takes place in the pathology laboratory, where the cervical samples are sent for cytological screening. A cervical cell sample that has no abnormal cells is categorised cytologically as being negative (negative for the presence of HPV or risk of cervical cancer). Alternatively, samples may be identified as containing borderline abnormal changes, or having dyskaryosis (Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2013).
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