Update: A Co. Clare GP is calling on politicians and the media to be more responsible in how they deal with public health issues, writes Vivienne Clarke.
Dr Máire Finn says that the current delay of six months in cervical smear results is because the system is overwhelmed following Minister for Health Simon Harris’s decision to offer free repeat smear tests to every woman after the CervicalCheck controversy.
“The six-month delay (in smear results) is a result of political and media hype,” she told RTE’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show.
“There needs to be more responsibility about how they talk about this.”
Dr Finn said that the CervicalCheck programme works very well and it is important to reassure women about the decision to offer repeat HPV tests to 6,000 women.
This is a second test for low-grade abnormalities. The risk is “incredibly low,” she said.
There are delayed diagnoses now because the system is overwhelmed following the Minister’s decision. “Delays in results is the main issue.”
However, Independents 4 Change TD Clare Daly said: “this is not something that rests on the shoulders of the Minister.”
The Government had a knee-jerk reaction, she added. “If Simon Harris didn’t offer Micheál Martin would have been first on his feet to demand it.”
Mandatory open disclosure was the key issue here, said Ms Daly. There also needs to be more HPV screening.
“Trust has been damaged in the screening process. How do we repair that trust?”
She said that in a way the HSE decision to contact 6,000 women to repeat their HPV smears was a good thing because it highlights the issue and the need to implement the key recommendations of the Scally Report.
“The key problem is a lack of open disclosure. Women are not being given the proper information. People need to know that the correct information is being given.”
The head of the HSE’s Women and Infants Health programme, Dr Peter McKenna, has acknowledged that the volume of women seeking repeat cervical smears could have contributed to delays, but that it brought to light the problem of HPV checks being out of date.
He was speaking on RTE’s Morning Ireland about reports that 6,000 women will likely be called for a repeat smear test following the identification of an issue with HPV tests.
Dr McKenna explained that in 2015 a decision was reached by the HSE to refer women with a middle-grade cervical smear test reading for an HPV test, writes Vivienne Clarke.
The test should be carried out within 30 days of the smear being taken, but it has transpired that the laboratory was counting 30 days from when they received the tests, not 30 days from when the test was taken.
Dr McKenna said: “We will have to find out how that happened. Our main concern now is to find the women in question.”
The HSE was alerted to the problem last November, he said, when Quest Laboratories advised CervicalCheck of a "specific problem in relation to standard HPV tests that have been carried out outside of the manufacturer's recommended timeframe since secondary HPV screening was introduced."
The extent of the problem unfolded in December, added Dr McKenna, with the HSE working from the New Year until now to identify the patients involved who will receive letters in the coming days inviting them to come back for a repeat HPV test.
He said: “The information is that the test is still very reliable, but we feel it is prudent to do a repeat.
When asked if the volume of women seeking a free cervical smear test following an announcement by the Minister for Health Simon Harris last year had exacerbated the problem, Dr McKenna acknowledged that might have been the case.
“But equally you could say, because of it, this problem came to light.”
The HSE has confirmed that up to 6,000 women who had a smear test carried out by CervicalCheck are to be called back for re-testing.
It comes after a problem arose in one of its laboratories which could lead to a risk of abnormalities being missed.
Quest Laboratories, which conducts screening of smears, advised CervicalCheck of a specific problem in relation to standard HPV tests that have been carried out outside of the manufacturer's recommended timeframe.
HPV testing is an extra form of screening carried out on samples where low-grade abnormalities have been detected by the lab.
The results of the test determine whether or not a woman will need a referral.
The HSE said action is being taken to investigate the issue fully, review any clinical impact or risk.
They have assured that this issue poses little risk to women's health and that evidence shows that HPV tests of this kind are effective outside the manufacturer's recommended timeframe
CervicalCheck expects to be able to contact the women affected by the end of next week.
Meanwhile, the Health Minister Simon Harris has been strongly criticised over problems relating to delays in smear test results.
The Dáil heard on Wednesday that waiting times for cervical smear tests were at crisis levels.
Meanwhile, it was announced that the State would fund the costs associated with the drug Pembro for cervical cancer patients who doctors deem suitable for treatment.
Labour Party Health Spokesperson, Alan Kelly, said delays in smear tests are having a knock-on effect on the service.
Mr Kelly said: "There are additional problems because women who are due there smears are now being delayed, but also women who need to be prioritised for smears are all put into the one bundle as regards delay here.
"There wasn't enough resources here when Minister Harris announced that there was going to be free smears for everyone in Ireland, and when he did so he should have ensured that there was more resources."