Eight women die in smear test blunders

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Three more women than previously admitted may have died in Britain's worst cancer smear test scandal. And doctors warned yesterday that more than a thousand women at risk have yet to be traced. Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent, reports.

As many as eight women may have died and 30 forced to have hysterectomies because cancers were not diagnosed early enough, a Kent hospital admitted yesterday.

"Serious failings" in Kent and Canterbury Hospital's cytology services meant that 91,000 smears taken between 1990 and 1995 had to be rechecked after problems were discovered. This was the biggest rescreening ever undertaken in Britain. Initially it was thought up to five women might have died but further checks revealed three more deaths, the hospital said yesterday.

Cancer of the cervix is the fifth most common cancer among women. The NHS screening programme was set up in 1988, and women aged between 20 and 64 are called for a cervical smear every three to five years. Since it was set up, deaths have fallen by a third.

But a succession of scandals - of which Kent was the worst - led the chief medical officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, to announce a shake-up of cervical smear laboratories after a Department of Health report found one in three was failing to meet national standards.

Last October, a highly-critical inquiry by Sir William Wells, chairman of the South Thames NHS region, found the service at Kent and Canterbury had poor and confused management, understaffing, inadequate training and a breakdown in working relationships.

Sir William told the hospital and East Kent Health Authority to publish yesterday's report detailing the outcomes for women affected by the rescreening. The hospital and health authority looked at the results of the rescreening exercises as well as deaths from cervical cancer between 1990-7, hysterectomies for cervical cancer from 1991-7, and cases involving personal injury claims brought against the trust.

Nearly 98 per cent of the rescreened women were found to be normal. Of the remaining 2 per cent, 1,977 women, more than 1,300 have yet to be traced.

Staff are especially worried about 114 women who have moved and not yet registered with a GP, therefore proving difficult to trace. Of these, the re-screening programme has revealed that 64 had inadequate smears, 43 registered low-grade abnormalities and seven had high-grade abnormalities.

Jo Hawkes, chairman of the East Kent Health Authority, said: "I'm personally determined we will not close this file and efforts to find these women will continue. The biggest lesson from what has happened here is the need for constant vigilance over service quality throughout the NHS and that any lapse in this approach has a direct impact on patients' lives, wellbeing and confidence in their health service."

Sarah Harman, a solicitor acting on behalf of 90 women affected by the case, said she was "horrified" that the number of possible deaths had risen to eight. "I am shocked by the new figures - and it could go far higher. We still don't know about problems which arose before 1990."

l Any woman wanting more details should contact the hospital helpline on 01227 766016.