Public Service Review: European Union - Issue 19
Nipping it in the bud
13 April 2010
Educating young people about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle is an essential pillar of the European Commission's efforts to tackle cancer, as Public Service Review details
Each year, 3.2 million Europeans are diagnosed with cancer, the most common cause of death after heart disease. Despite great advances in research and treatment, actions to prevent cancer and improve the quality of life for sufferers and survivors remain an ongoing health challenge.
The European Commission is committed to supporting research and advances to save lives, and prevention is vital. Former Commissioner for Health Androulla Vassiliou said: "The EU's ongoing activities aim at saving lives and improving the quality of life of cancer sufferers, focusing on primary prevention, rare cancers, clinical research and cancer screening."
Cases of cervical cancer are frequently prevented by effective screening programmes, which detect changes in the cells lining the cervix before they develop into cancer, but improvements in screening are vital to protect women from the cause – a high-risk strain of the common Human Papillomavirus Virus (HPV).
EU guidelines state all women from 25 years of age should participate in cervical screening and programmes that have quality control procedures in compliance with the European Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Cervical Screening. The guidelines are testimony to the collaborative role members of the European Union can play to assure the delivery of safe and effective services to improve cancer outcomes.
Cervical cancer primarily affects women between the ages of 35 and 50. Figures from the guidelines (2007) state that in the European Union, 34,000 new cases and over 16,000 deaths attributed to cervical cancer are reported annually.
The good news is that of all malignant cancer tumours, cervical cancer is the one that can be most effectively controlled by screening; detection of cytological abnormalities by microscopic examination of Pap smears and the subsequent treatment of women with high-grade cytological abnormalities avoids the development of cancer.
Furthermore, better understanding of the epidemiology of the disease is delivering positive health outcomes, as the growing evidence linking HPV infection to cervical cancer has prompted the development of test systems to detect its nucleic acids, as well as prophylactic and therapeutic vaccines. Testimony to this, in September 2008, the UK Government rolled-out the HPV vaccination programme, which uses a three-shot vaccine called Cervarix to protect against two high-risk strains (HPV16 and 18) that account for around 70% of cervical cancer cases. The vaccine is most effective when offered to girls between the ages of 12 and 13, ideally before they are exposed to the virus.
Cervarix is a school-based programme but the vaccine does not protect against all strains of HPV and will be offered alongside cervical screening. The message that permeates through all cervical cancer healthcare advice, however, is to practice a safe-sex culture as condoms reduce the chance of a woman developing precancerous changes in the cervix if she already has an HPV infection, as well as reducing the risk of becoming infected.
Clearly, educating young people about the risks associated with unhealthy behaviour can be key to the prevention of not only cervical cancer, but also diseases related to unhealthy eating. A recent study by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Department of Health in the UK – which compared the diet of Britain in 2008/9 with that of 10 years ago – found that teenagers, especially girls, are eating too much chocolate, crisps, sugary fizzy drinks and other junk food. The report indicated that just 7% of girls between ages 11 and 18 eat the recommended five-a-day portions of fruit and vegetables, while around two in five girls of the same age group do not consume enough iron, magnesium and other essential nutrients.
The European Commission states that six out of the seven most important risk factors for premature death – blood pressure, cholesterol, Body Mass Index, inadequate fruit and vegetable intake, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol consumption – relate to how we 'eat, drink and move'. It remains committed to promoting a balanced diet, regular physical activity and effective screening programmes to prevent cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer-related illnesses from taking hold.