CervicalCheck: The questions keep coming, but few answers

CervicalCheck is the nightmare ‘gift’ that just keeps on giving, so says Ailin Quinlan in her weekly column
CervicalCheck: The questions keep coming, but few answers

INSPIRATION: Vicky Phelan raised serious issues around CervicalCheck — and questions are still being raised today.

IT was not something that I was looking forward to. However, needs must as the devil drives, so some time towards the end of Spring, 2018, I grasped the nettle and scheduled the dread cervical smear test.

I was apprehensive about it, partly because of the physical discomfort and inconvenience the test inevitably involves.

I was also dreading the test because of Vicky Phelan.

Yet at the same time I was feeling incredibly lucky, also because of Vicky Phelan.

At that point, Ireland was still reeling from the revelations of Phelan, who only a few weeks previously, in April, 2018, had marched out onto the steps of the Four Courts and made a speech which rocked Irish society to its core.

Phelan, a mother-of-two from Limerick, informed the Irish nation that she was terminally ill. That there was no cure for her cancer. That she’d just been awarded €2.5 million in her case against a US testing lab over the alleged misreading of her smear tests under the CervicalCheck programme. That a review carried out when she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer, had found that an earlier smear test under the programme had been a false negative. That she had been left in the dark about it for three years by the HSE.

Now, having successfully resisted attempts to get her to agree to a gagging clause, Phelan was free to reveal that other women had been affected.

Her revelations sparked one of the biggest Irish health crises of this century. Within days, it had emerged that hundreds of other women with cancer had also not been told that an audit had changed the results of their original smear tests.

So. I was nervous about the test because of what was being revealed about the reliability of CervicalCheck.

However, I was feeling lucky because, as I told myself, thanks to Vicky Phelan’s revelations and the publicity surrounding what had emerged about the testing, there was a higher chance that my (hopefully) negative test results would really be negative, and not a false negative.

At least, I told myself firmly as the nation reeled in the wake of Phelan’s frightening revelations, thanks to those same revelations, there was probably a higher chance that my results would be correct.

And when, some months later — there was a bit of a delay as lots of women went for re-testing — the results came back, I was relatively reassured that my negative results were genuinely negative.

A year on, Phelan is, rightly, a national celebrity. Now a household name, she has won countless awards, received honorary doctorates, and appeared on The Late Late Show for her role as a crucial whistle-blower. The BBC has made a documentary about her. I’ve heard that a biography is in the offing. Good for her.

But, alas, CervicalCheck is the nightmare ‘gift’ that just keeps on giving. This week it emerged that as many as 250,000 smear tests from women in Ireland were read in labs in the U.S and the UK which were unapproved and not inspected by CervicalCheck.

This information was released in the second investigation report of Dr Gabriel Scally.

It’s truly horrifying to realise that, up until last year, CervicalCheck was only aware of six labs which were officially being used to carry out its screening, yet Dr Scally discovered that the real number was 16, with 10 unapproved labs dotted around the U.S and the UK and as far away as Hawaii being used.

It’s equally disconcerting to hear, yet again, the words “surprising” and “disturbing” being used in relation to CervicalCheck and the way it was doing things.

While Dr Scally said he had found no evidence that these labs were sub-standard, it is to say, at the very least, pretty worrying that slides were being transported to labs which had never been inspected by Irish officials.

So we are back to a number of key questions yet to be answered.

Some of the smaller labs have, it seems, since closed and Dr Scally’s task was to review facilities that read tests from Ireland up to 10 years ago.

So were some women compromised by the outsourcing of tests abroad? Have some women been put at risk because up to last year, CervicalCheck had such poor oversight of labs — and such clearly weak quality assurance systems?

So yes, the nightmare continues.

CervicalCheck has to take the blame for not knowing tests were being sent off to other labs.

A more stringent vetting system and proper surveillance would have given it a better chance of finding out that tests were being outsourced.


REPORTS about the advent of Nike’s plus-size mannequins in its flagship London store left me deeply uneasy.

The picture of the plus-size mannequin itself left me even more disturbed.

It seemed to me that under this no doubt well-intentioned initiative on inclusion, Nike is normalising something which should never be considered normal — obesity.

Overweight and obesity is a massive health issue in modern society. I believe that to normalise it like this sends out the entirely wrong message.

Obesity brings with it a whole range of very serious and extremely nasty health problems. Like diabetes, for example. Like cancer.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that words, ‘fat,’ ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ should ever be used as hurtful slurs — but they should be recognised as a warning, and not as something that can be dismissed as a routine element of everyday life.

I’ve been struggling with my weight since I hit my mid-40s. Now, a decade on, I’m still struggling. I’ve run, I’ve power-walked; I’m currently mixing weight-training, spinning and power-walking and despite all this, I’m still no sylph.

But I’ll keep trying because I’m under no illusion that those extra pounds are in any way okay.

Given the latest scientific findings about the dangers posed by belly fat, for example, I know I must do everything possible to shed them if I am to remain healthy into the future.

I read recently that obesity is defined as an addiction to sugars and a response to sadness, and that the only person who can fight it is the person affected.

That’s a very powerful and disturbing message. Because at the end of the day, your body will not be taken in by any delusion that obesity is its normal state. And it WILL make you pay.

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