Up to 7,000 more women than previously thought may have been fitted with potentially defective PIP breast implants in the UK, the Department of Health announced yesterday.
It brings to 47,000 the total number of women who are thought to be at risk from non-medical grade silicone used in their manufacture.
There are fears the substandard silicone, intended for use in mattresses, could lead to increased rupture rates, causing inflammation and injury. But official advice in the UK is that there is no evidence rupture rates are higher than with other implants.
The additional women were identified after investigations that indicated the French company at the centre of the scandal, Poly Implant Prothese (PIP), may have been using non-medical grade silicone in its products for longer than suspected. The French authorities had originally suggested that only implants made since 2001 were affected. But after inquiries by the UK regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the French authorities admitted implants made before 2001 were also suspect.
Simultaneous announcements about the new threat were made in Britain and Holland yesterday, but it is understood no announcement was made in France.
According to the Department of Health, about one in five breast implants routinely need replacing within 10 years, regardless of their make. It is therefore unlikely that all 7,000 extra women still have the implants in place. In January, an expert group led by the NHS medical director Sir Bruce Keogh advised that there was no need for women to seek routine removal of the implants, which would require them to have a risky operation.
But it said women who were concerned could seek an appointment with their GP and, if they were not reassured, could have them removed.
Private clinics were told they had a "moral duty" to remove implants they had placed, but the Health Department said where they refused, or the clinics had closed, women could seek treatment on the NHS. So far, GPs have referred for NHS care, including a scan, 4,534 women who were treated privately; 224 of those women have opted to have their implants removed.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "I want to reassure those affected by the news today that they will be provided with all the help they need from the NHS."