Elaine Loughlin: CervicalCheck should be a good news story but is explaining another failure

Deputy Political Editor Elaine Loughlin laments the most recent CervicalCheck controversy which has taken the focus away from the promotion of the new more accurate HPV screening system which was introduced last year.
Elaine Loughlin: CervicalCheck should be a good news story but is explaining another failure

Sick, sore and tired of it all. That's how every Irish woman would describe the latest CervicalCheck controversy. It is yet another blunder which only diminishes the trust and faith women have in the system.

Cervical cancer is a wretched disease that attacks young women and cuts lives short. Irene Teap, Emma Mhic Mhathúna, Ruth Morrissey and Laura Brennan are names we have all become familiar with, but 90 more families each year will lose a loved one to cervical cancer.

Screening is a vitally important service, it can detect this disease and save lives, why can we simply not get the messaging right?

Over the past three years the service has become a by-word for controversy - from the initial revelations of the misreading of slides; to the long backlogs that emerged after then Health Minister Simon Harris offered free repeat smears in 2018; followed by a complete pause of screening during Covid last year; to the serious concerns raised by campaigners about the CervicalCheck tribunal.

It has now emerged that 180 women who went for their check-up in recent months, will have to be retested as pressure on the system meant their slides expired before they could be fully examined.

HPV, which can be a precursor to cervical cancer, was found in these women's samples, but they were not sent on for cytology examination within the timeline period of 42 days.

The news broke before any of these women, or their GPs, had been contacted. Contact will be made at some stage this week, but details are scant.

In fact, when CervicalCheck clinical director Noirín Russell went on RTÉ's Morning Ireland to explain the controversy, she caused further confusion by providing a different helpline number to the one which appeared on the screening service's own website.

Reacting, Labour leader Alan Kelly warned that once again public confidence in the screening programme will be damaged and said clear communication was required.

Since Vicky Phelan waived her right to anonymity to raise serious failings in the service, CervicalCheck has been preoccupied by damage control, taking the focus away from the promotion of the new more accurate HPV screening system which was introduced last year.
Since Vicky Phelan waived her right to anonymity to raise serious failings in the service, CervicalCheck has been preoccupied by damage control, taking the focus away from the promotion of the new more accurate HPV screening system which was introduced last year.

Just a few hours later when Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris was asked about the issue, he said "the most important thing when anything goes wrong is for people to be transparent, to be forthcoming with all of the information and to speak directly to those impacted."

Detailing what had happened over the national airwaves, Dr Russell said: "There are going to be women listening this morning who find this really stressful and it's really important to state that the test being positive for HPV, does not mean that the woman has cervical cancer.

"It means that there's a risk factor present that we have to look at the cells, and therefore women who are affected will receive a personalised letter explaining what happened, and explaining that they need to have a repeat test performed three months after the first test to look and see what's going on with the cells, and whether or not they need a further referral onwards to a colposcopy clinic for more detailed examination."

She added that the huge volume of screening coupled with Covid social distancing measures had resulted in "huge capacity pressures".

When you are explaining you're losing.

The anger and frustration of 2018 has been replaced with exasperation as CervicalCheck rides the controversy carousel, seemingly unable to get off and spinning from one incident to another.

Since Vicky Phelan waived her right to anonymity to raise serious failings in the service, CervicalCheck has been preoccupied by damage control, taking the focus away from the promotion of the new more accurate HPV screening system which was introduced last year.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a family of very common viruses that are passed on during skin-to-skin contact, particularly sexual activity. There are over 100 types of HPV and most do not cause any problems, however, certain types are high risk and HPV is responsible for over 90% of cervical cancers.

Strains 16 and 18 are counted as the worst offenders and around 4.3% of women will have these types of HPV at any given time. It's important to note that most people's immune system can clear HPV from the body within 18 months without any treatment.

CervicalCheck has become a by-word for controversy since 221 cervical cancer patients, including Lorraine Walsh and Vicky Phelan, received an incorrect smear test.
CervicalCheck has become a by-word for controversy since 221 cervical cancer patients, including Lorraine Walsh and Vicky Phelan, received an incorrect smear test.

It also takes a long time, usually more than a decade, for cervical cancer to develop following an initial HPV infection.

Since March 2020, HPV has been the primary test in cervical screening. Campaigners, who had been calling for the introduction of this method, welcomed the move.

Before then, the smear test system looked first for abnormal cells in the cervix. If found, the woman usually had colposcopy and treatment to remove these cells – followed by HPV screening to check treatment had worked.

However, most abnormal cells return to normal by themselves and so there’s very little risk that they will develop into cancer if the woman doesn’t have HPV. This old system meant that some people had a colposcopy and treatment when they mightn’t have needed it.

The accuracy rate of the previous smear test was around 75%, the new HPV system is over 90% accurate.

CervicalCheck should be a good news story.

It is hoped that this new screening system, coupled with the HPV vaccination rollout for younger age groups, will lead to the elimination of this type of cancer in years to come.

It's beyond disappointing that as CervicalCheck is yet again explaining another failure and this positive message is being drowned out.

Did you know

Every Dáil has a father (or two) and a baby. The Father of the House is an unofficial title given to the longest-serving TD with unbroken service. 

While the title has been held by two men in the one term on a number of occasions, there has never been a mammy of the Dáil as no woman has ever earned the title. Richard Bruton and Willie O’Dea are the current Fathers of the Dáil having both served uninterrupted since 1982. 

The Baby of the Dáil is the youngest member of the House. Fianna Fáil’s James O’Connor currently holds the title having been elected, aged 22, at the last election.

Political headlines throughout history

1969

July 20 : Apollo 11 landed on the moon. As part of its front-page coverage, the Cork Examiner reported that Buzz Aldrin had brought a piece of Communion bread with him “to symbolise fellowship with his home church on earth”.

1972

July 21 : The provisional IRA admitted responsibility for an unprecedented wave of bombings in Belfast. While the bombers claimed warnings had been given, an RUC spokesperson said that with 20 explosions in the space of less than two hours nothing could be done to avert tragedy.

1983

July 26 : Just six of Labour’s 209 MPs turned up to hear Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams address a meeting at the House of Commons during his two-day visit to London. It was reported that of the handful who did show up, some were late and others left early.

2000

July 27 : The Examiner revealed that developer Owen O’Callaghan personally contacted the then-taoiseach Bertie Ahern and environmental minister Noel Dempsey regarding crucial planning rules that would see the size of supermarkets capped. The following day a ministerial order on this was changed.

2012

July 25 : Former Anglo Irish Bank chief executive Sean FitzPatrick appeared before Dublin District Court on 16 charges amid a media frenzy. It was the first of a number of legal proceedings involving Mr FitzPatrick, the most famous of which saw him acquitted in 2017.

The political week ahead

Tuesday Issues relating to Horse Racing Ireland are to be discussed with department officials at an early morning meeting of the agriculture committee. It comes after it emerged that successful racehorses linked to some of the biggest names in Irish racing were among 4,000 horses slaughtered in British and Irish abattoirs since 2019.

Tuesday It’s a busy day for members of the agriculture committee as they hold a second session in the afternoon. This time they will be discussing peat, or the lack of it. Moving away from harvesting peat may have been good for the environment, but it has caused problems for the horticulture sector which will be discussed with officials from a number of Government departments.

Wednesday The health committee will get an update on the Covid digital cert and how it is working a week into its rollout.

Wednesday With the Dáil on summer recess, ministers will push their weekly meeting back by a day. Covid and the reopening of hospitality are likely to be on the agenda.

Thursday Higher Education Minister Simon Harris will be grilled on the reopening of colleges and universities in a safe and sustainable way when he attends the Oireachtas committee on higher education.

Friday As housing continues to dominate the political agenda, Taoiseach Micheál Martin will be in Cork to launch the Peter McVerry Trust’s strategic plan, which promises to deliver 1,200 new social housing units over the next five years.

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