Thursday 17 October 2019

'How did things get so bad?' - 1,500 more women may be affected by cancer test scandal

  • HSE confirms that just 1,482 cases were reviewed out of a total of 3,000
  • The other 1,500 will now have to be investigated
  •  Senior management team sent in to examine CervicalCheck files
  • 'This is a bombshell. What volume of women have not had their cases audited?' - Alan Kelly
  • Calls for Tony O'Brien to resign as HSE chief as scandal grows
STRENGTH: Vicky Phelan photographed in Limerick yesterday Photo: Fergal Phillips
STRENGTH: Vicky Phelan photographed in Limerick yesterday Photo: Fergal Phillips

Eilish O’Regan, Kevin Doyle, Breda Heffernan and Ryan Nugent

AS many as 1,500 more women are at risk of being dragged into the continually escalating cervical cancer scandal.

The HSE confirmed that there are 3,000 cases of cervical cancer notified in the last 10 years to the National Cancer Registry – but just 1,482 of these cases were reviewed by the national screening programme.

The other 1,500 will now have to be investigated to find out if the women had a smear test and wrongly got the all clear.

In what has been described as a “bombshell”, Health Minister Simon Harris revealed in the Dáil that a “potentially considerable number of cases” where women developed cancer were not subjected to an audit.

It was believed that all existing smear tests were re-examined as a matter of practice if a woman was later diagnosed with cervical cancer.

However, the Serious Incident Management Team (SIMT) sent into CervicalCheck since Vicky Phelan settled her case has discovered that not all cases were examined.

Mr Harris said he did not have “specific figures” but agreed with Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly that it could be in the region of 1,500.

Records from CervicalCheck show that 1,482 cases were reviewed since 2008. Of these, 208 were shown to have “false negatives”.

The HSE last night told the Irish Independent that the senior management team sent in to examine CervicalCheck files in recent days was “working with the National Cancer Registry to see if any other women who have had cervical cancer should be included in the audit of historical screening tests, and anyone affected by this will be also be contacted”.

The team said: “Women who have had normal screening results do not clinically require an urgent screening test.”

The minister revealed: “While I had previously been advised and it had been commonly understood that the CervicalCheck clinical audit covered all cases notified by the National Cancer Registry, I have been informed this afternoon that this is not the case.

“These are not new cases of cancer. Nor is it a group of women wondering if they have cancer. These are women who have already been diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated as such but their cases have not been included in a clinical audit.”

Labour Party health spokesman Alan Kelly said: “This is a bombshell. What volume of women have not had their cases audited?”

Pressure has been mounting on the boss of the HSE to resign.

Emma Ní Mhathúna was diagnosed with second stage cervical cancer in 2016
Emma Ní Mhathúna was diagnosed with second stage cervical cancer in 2016

Kildare TD Fiona O'Loughlin is the first member of the main Opposition to call for Mr O'Brien's to step down as a result of the cervical cancer scandal.

She told Kildare FM that as the investigation takes place other people "may well" have to lose their jobs - but for the moment Mr O'Brien is the identifiable person linked to this scandal.

Sinn Fein has already called for him to "resign or be sacked".

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the HSE Director General, who is due to retire in August, should be given a fair hearing.

And Government sources told "The easy thing to do would be sack him but that might delay us getting us answers."

But they added: "Don't rule anything out in that regard. Tensions are very, very high."

If the wider Fianna Fáil party backs Ms O'Loughlin then the Government might feel it has no option but to sacrifice Mr O'Brien.

Meanwhile, a mother of five has spoken out after she was told her cervical cancer diagnosis was delayed by three years after she was given incorrect results for her smear test.

Emma Mhic Mhathúna (37) said she’s still in shock following the phone call from her doctor on Sunday. To add to her worries, she is currently awaiting biopsy results to find out if her cancer has returned.

Speaking to ‘An Saol ó Dheas’ on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, she said: “Everything is up in the air now. Last Sunday, my doctor in Dublin called. He said that he hoped I was reading the stories in the paper about the CervicalCheck. He said he didn’t have all my files in front of him, but that I was one of the women involved.

“The doctor told me that the smear results I got in 2013 were wrong...the first indications of cancer, the cells changing in the body, were there.”

She said she is now concerned for her children’s future.

“If I had got the right results at that time, I wouldn’t be where I am now...I had a kidney infection in January, I have a lung infection now.

“My life...well, I’m not too worried about my life, but the kids are very, very young.

“My head is spinning. I’m still going round in shock, is it true?”

Ms Mhic Mhathúna said she had smear tests every three years since the birth of her daughter Natasha, who is now 15. All the results came back as normal until 2016.

“On September 20, 2016, I got a biopsy done, but the doctor said to me straight out there and then that he didn’t need to wait to get the test results back, ‘you have cancer and we need to act quickly, I’m ordering an MRI for you’. That was Wednesday and on Monday I got the MRI and the doctor told me I had stage 2B cervical cancer.”

The young mother was perplexed as to how developed the cancer was, given her test results three years earlier. “I was saying to myself, how did things get so bad...and I had the letter from [the smear in] 2013 to say everything was fine,” she said.

Ms Mhic Mhathúna was treated at St Luke’s Hospital in Dublin. Since she and her family moved to Kerry six months ago, she has been under the care of doctors at University College Hospital Cork. “On April 15, a fortnight ago, I knew there was something wrong with my body again. I went to the doctor and he found something that was more than 1cm there.

“I was at the hospital last week and had to get a biopsy done yesterday. Séamus [her son] is making his Confirmation next Tuesday and I’m very worried about everything, so I asked the church and the school if Mario [another son]can make his Confirmation as well. He’s in fourth class. It’s good for me that they can both do it together.”

Ms Mhic Mhathúna is a passionate advocate of protecting women from cervical cancer and featured in a HSE promotional video for the HPV vaccine with her daughter Natasha just last year, entitled ‘I’m relieved that she is protected’.

Meanwhile, Ms Phelan has said Mr Harris’s plans for Hiqa to carry out a statutory investigation into CervicalCheck does not go far enough.

Speaking on WLRFM’s ‘Deise Today with Eamon Keane’, she said: “They are talking about carrying out a Hiqa statutory investigation but I don’t think that’s going to go far enough because Hiqa can’t force management to be made accountable”

She said the “buck doesn’t just stop” with HSE boss Tony O’Brien, saying Mary Harney was health minister when the decision was made to out-source smear test analysis to the US. “Mary Harney was in power at the time and she didn’t see anything wrong with the decision to out-source. It was a money-saving exercise.”

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