CDC Notes Sharp Declines in Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening

Sharon Worcester

July 02, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Breast and cervical cancer screenings declined sharply in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among certain racial and ethnic minority groups and rural populations, notes the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The new data come from the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP). a program that provides cancer screening services to women with low income and inadequate health insurance.

The data show that the total number of screenings funded by the NBCCEDP declined by 87% for breast cancer screening and by 84% for cervical cancer screening in April 2020 in comparison with the previous 5-year averages for that month.

The declines in breast cancer screening varied from 84% among Hispanic women to 98% among American Indian/Alaskan Native women. The declines in cervical cancer screening varied from 82% among Black women to 92% among Asian Pacific Islander women.

In April 2020, breast cancer screening declined by 86% in metro areas, 88% in urban areas, and 89% in rural areas in comparison with respective 5-year averages. For cervical cancer screenings, the corresponding declines were 85%, 77%, and 82%.

The findings are consistent with those from studies conducted in insured populations, note the authors, led by the Amy DeGroff, PhD, MPH, of the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

"Prolonged delays in screening related to the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to delayed diagnoses, poor health consequences, and an increase in cancer disparities among women already experiencing health inequities," the CDC states in a press release.

Women from racial and ethnic minority groups already face a disproportionate burden of cervical and breast cancers in the United States: Black women and Hispanic women have the highest rates of cervical cancer incidence (8.3 and 8.9 per 100,000 women, respectively, vs 7.3 per 100,000 among White women) and the highest rates of cervical cancer deaths. Black women have the highest rate of breast cancer death (26.9 per 100,000 women, vs 19.4 per 100,000 among White women), the study authors explain.

Although the volume of screening began to recover in May 2020 ― test volumes for breast and cervical cancer were 39% and 40% below the 5-year average by June 2020 ― breast cancer screening in rural areas remained 52% below the 5-year average, they report.

The findings were published online June 30 in Preventive Medicine.

"This study highlights a decline in cancer screening among women of racial and ethnic minority groups with low incomes when their access to medical services decreased at the beginning of the pandemic," DeGroff comments in the CDC press release.

The findings "reinforce the need to safely maintain routine health care services during the pandemic, especially when the health care environment meets COVID-19 safety guidelines," she adds.

The investigators used NBCCEDP administrative and program data reported to CDC by awardees – organizations that receive funding to implement the NBCCEDP – to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the number of breast and cervical cancer screening tests administered through the program and the effects of COVID-19 on the availability of screening services and NBCCEDP awardees' capacity to support partner clinics.

A total of 630,264 breast and 594,566 cervical cancer screening tests were conducted during the review period of January–June 2015–2020.

Despite COVID-related challenges, "a large number of awardees reported flexibility and creative efforts to reach women and support clinics resumption of clinical care, including screening, during the COVID-19 pandemic," the authors write.

"CDC encourages healthcare professionals to help minimize delays in testing by continuing routine cancer screening for women having symptoms or at high risk for breast or cervical cancer," DeGroff commented. "The Early Detection Program can help women overcome barriers to health equity by educating them about the importance of routine screening, addressing their concerns about COVID-19 transmission, and helping them to safely access screening through interventions like patient navigation."

Future studies will examine the effect of the pandemic on screening during the second half of 2020, when surges of COVID-19 and their timing varied geographically, they note.

Prev Med. Published online June 30, 2021. Full text

Sharon Worcester is an award-winning medical journalist at MDedge News, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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