Smear test recall: do not hesitate says MLA

Paula Bradley
Paula Bradley

A former cervical cancer sufferer has said patients who are being recalled over doubts about their smear test results “shouldn’t hesitate” to undergo the unpleasant experience of getting re-screened.

Paula Bradley, DUP MLA for North Belfast, was speaking after health authorities announced today that they had uncovered potential problems with cervical smear tests at two GP practices.

The recall affects about 150 women in total, and was sparked by what they dubbed “possible shortcomings in the technique used” by one particular healthcare worker.

The Public Health Agency (PHA) and Health and Social Care Board, described the recall as a “precautionary measure” designed to offer “reassurance” – and it does not “necessarily mean that their initial results were wrong”.

The PHA told the News Letter some tests “may not have adequately sampled all the cervix”, and that one of the GP practices concerned had “noticed a change in the pattern of results they were receiving on their patients”.

Women tested at the Abbott’s Cross Practice in Newtownabbey (which falls into Mrs Bradley’s constituency), and Dr McKenna’s Practice in Thames Street, off the Falls Road in west Belfast have now been sent invitations by their GP for a repeat screening test.

The PHA said the incident was first reported by a practice on April 26, and was then “fully investigated to assess the scope and significance”.

A statement on behalf of the two GP practices, issued via the PHA, said: “Patients who haven’t received a letter from us have no reason to be concerned and do not need to arrange a repeat test. They should just attend for routine screening when invited.”

Mrs Bradley – who has previously spoken to the News Letter about undergoing treatment for the disease after being diagnosed at age 24 – said of the news: “I actually felt it was really very worrying.

“I know what it’s like. Sometimes you have to pluck up the courage to actually go for a smear test – it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world. It’s invasive.”

Receiving a recall letter might be “quite frightening”.

But she said it is important not to “scaremonger”, and “the chances are that the result will come back the same” – adding recipients of letters “shouldn’t hesitate in going back again”.

The PHA said it is “not aware of a similar recall within this programme in Northern Ireland”.

It comes just over two months after health authorities announced a recall of thousands of people who had been patients of Dr Michael Watt, a consultant neurologist in Belfast.

Separately, in April it emerged more 200 women in the Republic developed cervical cancer after having misdiagnosed smear tests in a national screening scheme.

Gareth Kirk, CEO of Action Cancer, said people should still feel “very high confidence” in the quality of the Province’s cancer screening, adding there is “no indication whatsoever this is systemic across the screening programmes”.

When it comes to cervical cancer itself, he said: “It’s particularly a younger women’s disease. The survival rates are exceptionally good; particularly when a cancer is picked up through a screening test, survival rates actually are excellent. But equally, like all cancers, if not picked up early, survival rates reduce.”

In all, more than 130,000 cervical screening samples are taken each year across Northern Ireland. Women aged 25 to 49 are invited for cervical screening every three years, and those aged 50 to 64 are invited every five years.