Research has suggested that government guidelines should be revised to ensure more lesbian women are screened for cervical cancer.
Currently, NHS advice states that women who have never been sexually active with a man have a very low risk of the disease, suggesting these women may decline to attend cervical smear tests.
However, a study published in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care has claimed that most lesbians have had sexual contact with a man and that HPV (the virus responsible for most cervical cancers) can also be spread by female-to-female sexual contact.
The research also suggested that many healthcare professionals are unaware that lesbians can develop the disease.
Hazel Henderson, the author of the latest study, said: “There is no evidence that lesbians are at less risk of cervical cancer than their heterosexual counterparts.
“Lesbians are less likely than heterosexual women to present for cervical screening, as they and their medical advisors sometimes wrongly assume they have a low risk of developing cervical cancer.
“This may result in cervical abnormalities remaining undetected until symptoms appear at which time treatment is less likely to be effective.
“Medical personnel and lesbians need educating in the risk of cervical cancer to ensure there is no longer any ambiguity in the need for cervical screening in lesbians.”
Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s head of policy and research, has previously undertaken research on lesbian health and said she was “deeply concerned” about the numbers of such women missing smear tests.
She added: “More disturbing however is that one in five lesbian and bisexual women who have not had a cervical smear test have been told, wrongly, by healthcare practitioners that they are not at risk. One in fifty have been refused a test. Fifteen per cent of lesbian and bisexual women over 25 – almost double the number of women in general – have never had a cervical smear test.
“Gay women can get cervical cancer, and should be screened. If they are refused a test, they should complain. The General Medical Council has made it clear that lesbians should not be refused a smear test.”