Senior HSE officials confirmed the fatality rate as they said 162 of the 208 women were not told of the test mistake and that 175 had care they needed delayed due to the error.
Speaking during a detailed 90-minute press conference, the chair of the HSE’s serious incident management team examining what happened, Dr Patrick Lynch formally confirmed deaths have occurred.
Dr Lynch said after reviewing case files at 13 hospitals nationwide in the past 72 hours, he and his colleagues believe 208 women were wrongly told they did not have cervical cancer after a smear test.
Of this group, 164 failed to be subsequently told of the mistake, while 175 would have had a “different clinical management” of their care if the error had been uncovered earlier.
Dr Lynch said 17 women among the 208 have subsequently lost their lives due to cervical cancer, although he could not say at this stage if the original test error contributed to their deaths.
These women’s families are due to be contacted in the next 24 hours.
While no hospital-by-hospital breakdown has been made available, the facilities include Cork University Hospital, Tallaght, Waterford General, Wexford General, Galway University Hospital, the Coombe, Mayo General, the National Maternity Hospital Holles St, Limerick, and the Rotunda in Dublin.
“A total of 17 deaths have been confirmed of that cohort. The cause of death has not been established, but many of these women will have had invasive cancer and in some cases died,” said Dr Lynch.
Speaking during the same press conference, HSE director general Tony O’Brien — who announced his intention to leave his position last month — said he wanted to apologise to all women and families affected by the case.
However, he stressed the cervical cancer screening system is safe and has seen a 7% reduction in deaths in 10 years.
Mr O’Brien said he continues to have full faith in now stepped aside head of Cervical Check Dr Gráinne Flannelly, saying she has dedicated her life to cancer treatments.
Officials also confirmed 6,000 people have already contacted the HSE’s dedicated 1800 45 45 55 helpline, including 2,000 alone yesterday morning.
However, a number of difficulties with the system were acknowledged amid reports a number of women living abroad could not access the line.
Sinn Féin health spokesperson Louise O’Reilly last night tweeted: “I have been contacted by a woman waiting five hours for a call back from the cervical cancer helpline. She is distraught. This is not good enough.”