Irish PM says women let down by cervical cancer scandal

Leo Varadkar
Image caption Irish PM says the health system has let women down

Ireland's prime minister has apologised to the women who were given incorrect smear test results by the country's national cervical cancer screening programme.

At least 17 of the 208 have died, while some of the other women have been given months to live.

A small number of the 208 have yet to be contacted.

The scandal has led to the resignation of Ireland's health service chief.

Speaking at a press conference, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: "There is nothing I can say today to lessen the pain and suffering of the women at the centre of the cervical cancer controversy.

"Words cannot ease the anguish they are experiencing, or the unimaginable distress of their children and families."

Varadkar said the government will now "find out all the facts" and that it is "determined" to find out the truth.

"The fundamental rule of medicine, of public health care, should always be to put the patient first and never do harm," he said.

"Many women in Ireland are frightened today, many families are traumatised and people have been let down because this principle was not followed."

Image copyright RTÉ
Image caption Vicky Phelan settled her case against a US lab and the HSE for €2.5m

The Irish government has also agreed a comprehensive package of health and social care measures to support the 209 women and their families, who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer and whose audit result differed from their original smear test.

The measures include counselling services and a discretionary medical card for each woman affected so that they can avail of health services free of charge.

Background to the scandal

On Thursday, it was revealed that in 2016 the National Screening Service, the Irish government body for cancer prevention, had prepared a media response for stories about misdiagnosed smear tests after an internal audit of its cervical smear test unit, Cervical Check.

Detailed tests for CervicalCheck, which has operated for the past 10 years, usually take place every three years.

Tony O'Brien, the former director general of the Health Service Executive (HSE), who resigned on Thursday, confirmed he read all three memos on the matter.

Image copyright RTÉ/Oireachtas TV
Image caption Tony O'Brien, the head of Ireland's health service, who has resigned

On Friday, Ireland's Minister for Health Simon Harris said these memos were never brought to the attention of any serving minister for health.

The scandal was only brought to light in April this year after Limerick woman Vicky Phelan took a case against the HSE and Clinical Pathology Laboratories, the US laboratory which was analysing the tests for Ireland's National Cervical Screening Programme, for incorrect smear results.

The false negative was uncovered during a retrospective audit. It was relayed to her doctor in 2016, but Mrs Phelan was not told for another 15 months.

Mrs Phelan settled the case for €2.5m (£2.2m). She has been given 12 months to live.

National scandal

In the days following the settlement it emerged that more than 200 other women diagnosed with cancer may have missed out on earlier medical intervention.

According to the HSE at least 17 of the 208 women have died.

One of the women is Emma Ní Mhathúna, who had previously featured by the HSE in its campaign to promote the cervical cancer vaccine.

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Media captionEmma Mhic Mhathúna

The 37-year-old mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2016, three years after she had received the all-clear from a smear test. That test turned out to be wrong.

She said her gynaecologist told her that if her abnormal test had been picked up in 2013 she would not be in this position now.

In a candid interview with RTÉ, Ms Ní Mhathúna, who is a single mother, said he had to sit down with her children to tell them she was dying.

The fallout

On Wednesday, Varadkar told the Dáil that the attorney general has been asked to work with the State Claims Agency to settle outstanding cervical cancer cases similar to that of Mrs Phelan.

Women affected by the cervical cancer smear controversy will be compensated.

A scoping inquiry into the issues will also be established and a report on the controversy is expected to be published by the end of June.

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