Sunday 18 August 2019

Over 50 women whose test results were delayed by IT glitch tested positive for the HPV virus, says Health Minister Simon Harris

Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
'The women's tests were screened for the HPV virus at the Quest laboratory in Chantilly, Virginia, in the US.' Stock photo: David Davies/PA

Allison Bray

Over 50 out of 800 women whose pap smear test results were delayed due to an “IT glitch” at an American lab tested positive for the HPV virus, Health Minister Simon Harris confirmed today.

However, he said the risk of the HPV-positive women going on to develop cervical, vulvar and head and neck cancers associated with certain strains of the virus was very low.

“I’ve met with the chief clinical officer of the HSE today, who’s assured me that there’s a very low clinical risk in relation to this situation,” he said.

READ MORE: HSE sets up review into CervicalCheck crisis - but no mention of woman who unearthed 'glitch'

“This is a cause of great frustration, great annoyance and great stress to women. Of that, there is no doubt. This should not have happened. This IT glitch should not have happened.”

He made the comments at a press conference in Dublin after it emerged that around 800 women who had pap smear and HPV re-tests through the under-fire CervicalCheck screening programme had their test results delayed for weeks due to a technical problem at the US-based Quest Diagnostic labs contracted by the State to analyse the tests.

It has since emerged that a private secretary to the minister wrote to the woman who exposed the delay on June 6,  even though the Minister said he wasn’t informed of the latest scandal to hit the CervicalCheck programme until the evening of July 10.

READ MORE: More staff needed to roll out HPV vaccine for boys - unions 

However, the minister said she was not the only woman contacting his department about their test results. This was due to the massive backlog of retests that was sparked when hundreds of women – several of whom have since died from cancer – were given false negative test results when they actually had cancer or pre-cancerous conditions.

As a result, the department wouldn’t necessarily sound the alarm until it emerged weeks later that there was a problem with hundreds of test results not being relayed to GPs due to the IT glitch, he said.

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'The women's tests were screened for the HPV virus at the Quest laboratory in Chantilly, Virginia, in the US.' Stock photo: David Davies/PA

The tests were carried out between October 1, 2018 and June 25, 2019 and were mostly re-tests for the presence of the HPV (human papillomavirus). The re-tests were necessary after the original tests done by the lab were found to be out of date and not reliable, giving a false negative reading.

The virus, which is spread through sex, typically manifests shortly after the onset of sexual activity in most people who are sexually active. In most cases, the body’s immune system is able to fight off the virus.

But in some cases the virus persists and can go on to trigger pre-cancerous or cancerous cells if high-risk strains of the virus are present.

This is a cause of great frustration, great annoyance and great stress to women. Of that, there is no doubt. This should not have happened. This IT glitch should not have happened. Health Minister Simon Harris

There are about 14 high-risk strains, with HPV16 and HPV18 strains being the most sinister responsible for about 70pc of cervical and other cancers.

Despite the presence of the virus in 52 of the retests, Mr Harris said the women concerned should not be unduly concerned.

"I’ve been told it’s a very low clinical risk,” he said.

Results of the re-tests have now been passed to the GPs of the women involved or they should get their results by this week, he said.

Asked if women in Ireland can have confidence in the HSE’s advisors, given the controversy over the CervicalCheck scandal, Mr Harris said: “I trust the doctors that advise me, I trust the chief clinical officer of the HSE and I think the women of Ireland trust their doctors.”

He conceded that the glitch at Quest labs was "unacceptable” to himself, his department and the women of Ireland.

But asked if the State should sever its contract with the lab, he said: “Quite frankly, we have no other alternative.” He said there was no capacity in the system in Ireland to deal with the sheer volume of tests.

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