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Live: 'Inevitable' that some women will have abnormal smears, HSE head tells committee

Update: It is "inevitable" that some women who are now waiting up to six months for CervicalCheck results will have abnormal smears, the head of the HSE's Women and Infants Health Programme has warned.

Officials from the HSE have also confirmed that the already delayed HPV test may not be rolled out this year due to the backlog in smear tests, writes Elaine Loughlin.

Health Minister Simon Harris had initially promised that the new test would be introduced by last October, however, appearing before the Oireachtas Health Committee on Wednesday morning officials said that they "can't put a date on" when this system will come into force.

Anne O'Connor, interim director general of the HSE, told the committee that there is now a backlog of 78,000 slides and the length of time being taken for reporting of cervical smears is now averaging 93 days although it in some cases it is taking 27 weeks for reports to be provided.

She said this backlog will have to be cleared before the new test, which is significantly more accurate, can be introduced.

Asked when the HPV test will be available to women in Ireland, Ms O'Connor said: "I can't put a date on that, our priority at the moment is to address the capacity challenges that we have.

"We are caught in terms of addressing the current cytology challenges as well as trying to progress HPV, so we have to sort out our current situation first, address capacity, address the backlog and move to the new model."

Fianna Fáil health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly asked about the potential clinical risk to women if abnormalities are detected after a six month waiting in receiving smear results, pointing out that many women were now concerned about this.

Responding, Clinical Director of the HSE's Women and Infants Health Programme, Dr Peter McKenna said: "We would all share the concern that a waiting time in excess of a couple of months is far from ideal.

"Of course there will be women in that group in the 80,000 that will have abnormal smears.

"Most of those women who have abnormal smears will be a long way from developing cervical cancer but there will inevitably be some women who are nearer the stage of transition from pre-invasive to invasive.

"It's not really possible to give an estimate on the number but it would be foolhardy to say there would be no risk, but in general the risk would be low," Dr McKenna said.

Earlier: CervicalCheck faces backlog of 78,000 smear tests

There is a backlog of almost 80,000 cervical smear tests as the system struggles to cope with extra demand.

The figures come as a Joint Committee on health is given an update on the CervicalCheck programme by the HSE.

Ms Anne O’Connor, Interim Director General of the HSE has told the committee that the length of time being taken for reporting of cervical smears is on average around 93 days.

She added that it can take up to 27 weeks for the report to be provided. She also confirmed that there is a backlog of around 78,000 slides.

In the past, it took four to six weeks to get a result from a smear test.

Ms O'Connor said: "We have worked with existing private providers, other private providers and public service providers in other countries to try and grow our laboratory capacity. Some of our existing providers have managed to reduce the wait times and we continue to work with others to try and find additional capacity. While we continue to pursue active leads this has proved very challenging due to the global shortage in cytology.

"The HSE has a signed agreement with one of the private providers and are working through the detail on a contract with the second provider with whom we have a heads of agreement. We also made a strategic decision to develop a national cervical screening laboratory in conjunction with the Coombe Woman and Infants University Hospital.

"This included an initial capital allocation of €5m to progress the development of the laboratory. A project team and steering group has been put in place to oversee all aspects of this project. This will take some time to develop but will provide a better balance between public and private provision of laboratory services to the cervical screening programme."

An additional 90,000 women sought a smear test after free re-checks were offered in the wake of the CervicalCheck scandal.

The HSE bosses will say they are committed to introducing that screening here and that all resources are being put towards stabilizing the cervical screening programme.