Last week, Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt, said that up to 270 women in England could have died because they did not receive invitations to a final routine breast cancer screening. 450,000 women aged 68-71 failed to get invitations since the problem first arose in 2009. Public Health England discovered the problem after analysing data and has apologised to the women affected. Mr Hunt has announced an independent review and apologised “wholeheartedly and unreservedly” to the women and their families for the suffering caused. He said that a faulty computer algorithm was to blame.
Breast screening is used to detect cancer early on by using a mammogram which is a type of x-ray used to spot tumours when they are too small to see or feel. If detected, early treatment of breast cancer is more likely to be successful. In England, the screening is currently offered once every three years to women between the age of 50 and 70, as the likelihood of getting breast cancer increases with age. Women cannot, however, ask for an appointment themselves until they turn 70.
All women affected by the problem will now be contacted by the end of May and those under 72 will receive an appointment for a catch-up mammogram. Mr Hunt has also said that any woman who wants a mammogram will get one within six months. A hotline has been set up and extra staff are to be provided at screening departments for the additional appointments that would be needed.
A group of 15 health experts, however, have written to the Times saying that women must not be subjected to “fear-mongering” as they believe routine breast cancer screening could do “more harm than good”. The group of academics and GPs say women aged between 70 and 79 who are being offered catch-up appointments should only seek help if they notice a lump or other symptoms.
Dr Emma Pennery, clinical director at Breast Cancer Care, said that “there are two sides to the coin and it is estimated that for every life saved, three women will have unnecessary treatment.” She added that it is “crucial” that every women eligible is offered screening and is given enough information to make her own choice based on the risks and benefits. Jeremy Hunt has acknowledged that there is “currently no clinical consensus about the benefits of screening” for the 68 -71 age group.
The independent review into the “serious failure” will look at how many women were affected by the breast screening problem, why the failure happened, and how it can be prevented from happening again. It will be chaired by the chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support and a Professor from the Royal Marsden Hospital, and is expected to conclude within six months’ time.
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