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Matt Walsh: Young girls put at health risk by social media cancer storm

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The uninformed and more often than not misinformed nature of social media and the dangers this poses to society must not be underestimated.

While social media platforms have changed the way that campaigning takes place and provided Joe Public with the tools they need to get involved, it has at the same time made it easier for Joe Public to jump on a bandwagon calling for radical overhaul of complex health policy with little (if any) scientific support.

The tragic case of Sophie Jones, just 19 years old when she died of cervical cancer after being denied a smear test has sent a wave through social media and led to significant support for a campaign to lower the age of cervical screening from 25 to 16 years old.

Sophie was denied a cervical screening by her doctor despite displaying a number of symptoms of cervical cancer. Although of little comfort to her family, tragic incidents such as these are extremely rare in the UK – Cancer Research UK statistics show that between 2009 and 2011, nobody under the age of 20 died from cervical cancer.

After the awful story of what happened to Sophie came to light, a social media campaign began to rapidly take shape.

A petition was set up on the e-petition website calling for the age of cervical screening to be reduced from 25 to 16 years old and has to date seen almost 300,000 signatures of support. The large number of signatories is largely due to a typically vague social media campaign, devoid of any scientific evidence with potentially damaging consequences.

There is no question that the people who established the initiative and those who support it genuinely want to do something positive and believe that lowering the age from 25 to 16 will save lives, however the campaign is emotive and does not consider the greater ramifications.

Following the death of reality TV star Jade Goody in 2009, the UK Government carried out a review of whether the screening age for cervical cancer should be lowered and concluded it should not. The reason for this is because of the higher risk of abnormal results in women under the age of 25 and the unnecessary and harmful treatment that potentially follows.

One in three smear test results for women under the age of 25 are abnormal. In comparison, 1 in 14 smear test results are abnormal in older women. If, following an abnormal test a woman has treatment, it will involve cutting part of the cervix, which will result in it being shortened, weakened and more likely to open during pregnancy.

The current UK screening age of 25 is supported by both the Advisory Committee on Cervical Screening and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The e-petition calling on the Government to drastically lower the age of cervical screening from 25 to 16 provides no medical support for such a call and relies entirely on emotive language to secure support.

The ability to run a campaign has been made significantly easier with the growth of social media. Anybody, anywhere can initiate a call to action and quickly gather support from around the globe for their cause at the ease of a single click.

One of the huge failings of social media has been to effectively raise awareness of disease. The most recent “no make-up” photograph cancer campaign is a perfect example.

Facebook is awash with “selfies” of women claiming to have gone make-up free, although realistically, many have spent hours dolling themselves up and perfecting the optimum pose to ensure they receive as many gushing comments from their loyal friends as possible.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of women who have engaged in this vanity exercise fail to mention the word “cancer” in their status and avoid raising any useful awareness of cancer.

An education and prevention campaign which helps young people understand its causes and detect the early warning signs of cancer will do far more to save lives than a reactionary, medically flawed call for action which will put 16 year old girls at unnecessary risk.

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Matt Walsh
Matt is Corporate Director at Media Intelligence Partners

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