Cancer tests on 20,000 women to be checked: Inquiry after one in 10 may have been given 'all clear' in error

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The Independent Online
A FULL inquiry was launched in Scotland yesterday when it was disclosed that an unknown number of women were wrongly given an 'all clear' on their smear tests for cervical cancer. Now 20,000 smears taken over a five-year period are to be re-examined.

The errors came to light only two months ago when a woman developed cervical cancer although her test had earlier been judged clear. Doctors became suspicious and ordered a quality control check on 1,000 smears that had been read in a hospital laboratory. Seventy previously identified

as normal had potential cancer


Now the Argyll and Clyde Health Board has ordered an urgent re- examination of all 20,000 cervical smears taken between 1987 and February last year because of 'serious discrepancies' at the laboratory of the Inverclyde Royal Hospital.

The consultant pathologist in overall charge at the laboratory, Dr John Ronald More, has now retired. It was confirmed to the Independent yesterday that Dr More's wife, Dr Shirley Stanworth, also worked in the pathology laboratory, where her principal work was in evaluating smear tests. She was an associate specialist in cytology (the examination of cells) and also retired 15 months ago.

At their home in Wemyss Bay, near Greenock, their son said both doctors were on holiday, and were 'making no comment on what had happened'.

A external quality assessment programme was set up nationally to monitor cervical screening after serious errors at other United Kingdom hospitals. The Inverclyde hospital was one of the last to establish that control system, in place by February last year. The most serious screening errors were in Liverpool in the mid-1980s when 45,000 tests had to be re-examined, showing 911 errors. Four women may have died as a result.

Dr Euphemia McGoogan, a senior lecturer in pathology at the University of Edinburgh, will head the new inquiry. She has been promised 'open access to everything' and her findings will be made public.

Robert Reid, chairman of Argyll and Clyde Health Board, apologised for the potential trauma now facing 20,000 women. 'We are sorry and deeply regret the serious situation and the obvious increased distress that this will cause.'

Doctors at Inverclyde Royal Hospital estimate that some 2,000 women from the 20,000 tests will have to have another test.

The health board emphasised yesterday that the rechecks were a precaution and did not necessarily mean those recalled had developed cervical cancer. Nobody tested before 1987 will be recalled. A helpline staffed by nurses and counsellors set up yesterday received 100 calls in its first hour.

Tommy Graham, Labour MP for Inverclyde, said last night: 'This is a blunder of incredible magnitude, affecting thousands of women.' He welcomed the inquiry as a first step in dealing with the error.

The screening began piecemeal in the UK in the mid-1960s when 2,500 women a year died from cancer of the cervix.

A full programme was in place by 1988 with women aged between 20 and 64 years offered tests every three or five years. Deaths have fallen to about 1,650 a year.

Helpline: 0800 241333, 9am-9pm.

Anxiety for thousands, page 2