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Health chiefs accused of ‘mixed messaging’ on cancer screening controversy

The Irish Cancer Society said women need clear information about their screening results.


CervicalCheck programme

CervicalCheck programme

CervicalCheck programme

A cancer charity has accused health chiefs of “significant mixed messaging” on the cervical cancer screening scandal as the Chief Medical Officer confirmed the tests are 99% reliable.

Donal Buggy, of the Irish Cancer Society, said women in Ireland feel “confusion, concern, frustration and fear” after it emerged that women with the disease were not told about wrongly interpreted smear results.

He was speaking at a press conference in Dublin convened by Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan aimed at giving a clear message to women concerned about their tests and potential cancer risk.


CervicalCheck programme

CervicalCheck programme

PA Wire/PA Images

CervicalCheck programme

At the start of the week it was revealed that an audit by CervicalCheck – the national screening programme – of 1,482 women diagnosed with cervical cancer since 2008 had found potential errors in 208 cases, as tests showed no abnormality when they should have been given a cancer warning.

The majority of the 208 women – 162 – were not initially told of the outcome of the audit. Of the 208, 17 have since died.

It has since emerged that a further 1,518 women with the cancer in the same period have not been audited but health chiefs stress the number affected by potential errors in this group is likely to be lower.

Senior health figures remained unable to give numbers on Thursday for the second group on how many women have since been audited, found to have potential test errors or contacted regarding this but said this work is ongoing.

Mr Buggy said: “I am here this morning following a week of confusion, concern, frustration and fear for very many women right around Ireland.

“There has been significant mixed messaging and that’s something I feel we need to get right and needs to stop today.”

He said he wanted clarity for the 3,000 women diagnosed with cervical cancer in the past 10 years and for women involved in the screening programme who had been given negative results.

“No women will be reassured by an investigation, a commission or a political conversation this weekend. They need to have clear information.”

Under questioning, Dr Holohan agreed that the screening programme was 99% reliable, with National Cancer Control Programme director Dr Jerome Coffey saying there is a “tiny proportion” of false negatives – less than one in 100.

Dr Holohan said: “The evidence that we have before us is not evidence of a clinical failure in relation to the programme.

“It’s not evidence that people who have been through the programme can have less confidence in what the programme has said about their result.”

He said people with normal smears have no need for an emergency repeat test but will be given one after contact with their GP if wished.

Meanwhile, Health Service Executive director-general Tony O’Brien is to take temporary leave of absence from the board of a US company he joined earlier this year.

In the Dail, deputy Joan Burton confronted Health Minister Simon Harris.

She said: “At a time when women are really, really hurting … to most women this is just extraordinary that the CEO would be allowed by you as minister or the previous minister to take a second lucrative appointment.”

Mr Harris said the contract allowed the health service chief, who has faced calls to step down immediately ahead of his planned contract end in summer, to take up employment, where the minister sanctions it, if for less than five hours a month.

He added: “Quite rightly, considering the very important issues you highlight for women’s health and the need for him to focus on that absolutely exclusively for the remaining few weeks of his term, he has appropriately taken a leave of absence.”

Tanaiste Simon Coveney said Mr O’Brien would be focused on contributing in a positive manner to the work needed to put the problems right.

“I think that is the appropriate course of action.”