IT would be “foolhardy” to say there is no hazard to some women who must wait over six months for cervical smear test results – but the “risk is low,” a leading doctor said yesterday.
Dr Peter McKenna, who is head of the HSE’s women’s health programme, was commenting in the light of growing concern about CervicalCheck’s backlog of 78,000 tests, which can take 27 weeks to report on.
“We all share the concern that a waiting time in excess of a couple of months is far from ideal,” he said.
There is a lead-in time of 10 to 15 years for cervical cancer, he told the Oireachtas Health Committee.
Abnormal smears will emerge in some of the group of nearly 80,000 women but most of them will be a “long way from developing cancer”.
But there will be some women who are “transitioning” from pre-invasive and invasive cancer, he added.
“It would be foolhardy to say there is no risk, but in general it is low,” he said.
Dr McKenna was responding to questions from Fianna Fáil spokesman on health Stephen Donnelly, who said the biggest worry he encounters among women concerns the impact the delay could potentially have on treatment.
He said women ask: “Is there a risk that treatment will be potentially delayed?”
Based on 78,000 tests, some 1,200 could have abnormalities, said Mr Donnelly.
Dr McKenna replied the likelihood is that women who availed of the additional test, offered following the CervicalCheck controversy, would have less chance of having an abnormality.
“For the vast majority of women the treatment will be the same in six months’ time as if the smear test is reported now,” he said.
The backlog built up following the take-up of tests by 370,000 women last year. The Government offered any woman a free additional test as a reassurance after the controversy about the non-disclosure of audit results to a majority of 221 women who received a wrong test result erupted last April.
Damian McCallion, head of the HSE’s national screening programme, said CervicalCheck has made intense efforts and “trawled globally” to source more lab capacity to help clear the backlog, going as far as Scotland and even mainland Europe.
But there is now a global shortage of cytologists as more labs move to HPV testing of smears.
He said in order to mitigate the risk women attending cancer diagnostic clinics who need a smear test are being prioritised by labs to speed up their results.
Labs which are struggling have also been given funding to do HPV testing of smears first, which will help prioritise women who are at risk of abnormalities.
However, he told Fianna Fail TD Jack Chambers it is still not possible to isolate from the pool the tests of women who are recommended for screening every six months.
“We are looking at whether a technology solution can be found around this complex group,” he added.
The meeting was told that colposcopy clinics, where women with abnormal smears are seen to find out if they are harmful, are also struggling to cope with a big rise in patients being referred by GPs.
Officials indicated to Labour TD Alan Kelly that a new report will show the number of labs used to read tests sent from Ireland has increased. The labs were used without the knowledge of CervicalCheck which believed the tests were confined to labs they had directly commissioned.
Dr Gabriel Scally, who is to report on the use of labs in Las Vegas and Hawaii, will reveal that the practice was wider than believed.