NEW DELHI: Less than 30% of women in India aged 30-49 years have ever been screened for cervical cancer, according to a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), despite the disease accounting for the second highest number of new cancer cases and cancer-related deaths in the country.

There are nearly 97,000 new cases of cervical cancer in India and just over 60,000 deaths because of the disease, according to the health ministry. The cancer is at the third and fourth stages in around 70% of the women suffering from it, according to the government. Around 20% of women who develop cervix cancer die within a year of it being diagnosed, while the five-year survival rate is 50%, according to ICMR.

As such, government programmes being able to screen barely 29% of women is a reflection of the poor state of healthcare in India.

World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines state that women aged 30-65 years should be screened every five years for cervical cancer, according to the Union health ministry’s recommendations based on WHO guidelines. In 2016, the health ministry also made screening for cervical cancer mandatory for women above the age of 30, as also oral and breast cancers.

The researchers used the latest data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), a nationally representative survey conducted at the district level during 2015-16 that covered 699,686 women aged 15-49 years.

Government officials said there are several challenges in screening under the government programmes. “The major problem is women feel shy about cervical cancer screening and this includes educated women. Also, there is a dearth of healthcare infrastructure for screening for cervical cancer. Government hospitals are overburdened," said Pramod Kumar Julka, chairman, cancer research projects, ICMR.

“Despite availability of effective low-cost screening options limited access to screening and treatment services, diagnosis at a later stage, and low investment in healthcare infrastructure contribute to the high number of deaths," said Ravi Mehrotra, director, ICMR-National Institute for Cancer Prevention and Research.

“We are trying to provide comprehensive primary healthcare services under the Ayushman Bharat scheme, which provide screening for many ailments, and women are now being screened for common cancers such as breast, cervical and oral cancers," said Preeti Sudan, secretary, Union health ministry.

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