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18 February 2019 | Comment | Article by Ruth Powell

Public Health Wales apologise after smear tests were stored in out of date sample pots.

Cervical Screening Wales has recently written to women to inform them that the cervical cancer screening samples of 369 women in Wales were stored in out-of-date sample pots.

Women aged between 25 and 64 are invited for cervical screening (also known as the smear test) every three years and women aged between 50 and 64 are invited every five years. The purpose of the cervical screening test is to look for high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause cell changes. In detecting early cell changes, this type of screening can prevent cervical cancer from developing.

The smear test is carried out at GP surgeries and at some sexual health clinics and involves taking a sample of cells from the cervix using a small, soft brush. Once the sample is collected this is then put in a vial of liquid which preserves the cells and this is then returned to a laboratory for screening.

Unfortunately it was found that a small percentage of vials used were past the manufacturer’s expiry date and Cervical Screening Wales has written to those women affected, half of which will require a repeat smear test. The incident took place at a time when Cervical Screening Wales were rolling out HPV screening.

The issue affects less than 2% of women who received cervical screening in Wales between July and October 2018 and some of the affected samples have already been screened again.

Public Health Wales has apologised for the error and the Director of Screening for Public Health Wales, Sharon Hillier has reassured the women affected by this issue that there is no evidence that any harm has been caused as a result. The results already issued have been carefully looked at and where possible, some samples have been re-screened.

According to the NHS, approximately 3,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year in the UK and there are about 160 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed every year in Wales.

The aim of the NHS Cervical Screening Programme is to reduce the number of women who develop cervical cancer. If you are screened regularly then this means that any abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix can be identified at an early stage and, if necessary, treated to stop cancer developing. This is the best way to identify any abnormal cells that could later turn into cancer.

Although it is possible for sexually active women of all ages to develop cervical cancer, the condition is most common in women aged between 30 and 45.

Women under the age of 25 are not routinely invited for screening as cervical cancer is very rare in women under 25 and whilst HPV infection is common in women under 25, their immune systems often clear the infection and the abnormal cells will go back to normal without treatment. There is also an NHS HPV vaccination programme where all girls from the age of 12 up to 18 can get the HPV vaccine which helps protect them against cervical cancer. According to the NHS, the number of younger women diagnosed with cervical cancer is likely to go down because of this.

According to Cancer Research, cervical screening prevents at least 2,000 cervical cancer deaths each year in the UK where women screened between the ages of 35 to 64 are thought to have a 60% to 80% lower risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer in the 5 years following the test compared to women who haven’t been screened.

In the UK, cervical screening started in the 1980’s and since then the cervical cancer rates has almost halved according to the NHS and Cancer Research.

It is therefore important that women attend for cervical screening when invited however women are still urged to look out for any unusual symptoms such as:

  • Unusual bleeding (in particular in between periods and during and after sex)
  • Unusual or unpleasant vaginal discharge
  • Pain and discomfort during sex

Whilst there are many conditions that can cause these symptoms, women are encouraged to see their GP if they notice anything unusual.

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Author bio

Ruth is a Partner and Head of our Clinical Negligence Department. She has exclusively practised in clinical negligence since qualifying in 1995 and has a wealth of experience in complex and high value clinical negligence claims.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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