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CervicalCheck scandal: HSE says 434 smears expired before testing

The HSE said expired samples, as well as expired or damaged vials, are “an inevitable feature” of cervical screening programmes.

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THE HSE HAS said more than 430 smear tests expired before they could be tested due to the “unprecedented demand” on the screening service over the last year.

Under the CervicalCheck programme, a smear test sample must be sent to a laboratory and transferred to a slide within six weeks of the test being taken. After six weeks, the sample is deemed to have expired and cannot be processed.

In a statement, the HSE referenced the decision by MedLab Pathology Ltd last summer not to process new samples from CervicalCheck to concentrate on the backlog that built up after the controversy around the screening service.

“Additional capacity was secured by the HSE at Quest Diagnostics and the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital which allowed the programme continue until its transition to HPV primary screening,” it said. 

The HSE said it was during this transition period that a number of samples were “unfortunately not transferred to slides within the six week timeframe and subsequently expired”.

As of 1 July 2019, this affected 434 samples. CervicalCheck wrote to women affected to advise them of this issue and invite them to attend a repeat smear test. These letters were issued on 4 July.

Affected women have been advised to have their repeat test at least three months after the previous test. This is to allow sufficient time for the cervical cells to grow back and another test to be taken.

“While generally low in number, expired samples, as well as expired or damaged vials, are an inevitable feature of cervical screening programmes and can occur for a number of reasons – for example, a delay in GPs sending samples to laboratories; vials being damaged in transit; samples not being transferred to slides in time in laboratories, particularly during periods of significant activity or during a transition in laboratory provider,” the HSE said.

The expiry rate for CervicalCheck was 0.25% in 2017. From April to October 2018 the rate of expired samples and vials was 0.29%. The HSE said Cervical Check has taken measures to minimise expiration as a result of the “unprecedented demand” upon the service at this time.

In its statement, it said it is important to point out that the sample expiry issue is unrelated to the failure to issue 800 test results from Quest Diagnostics’ Chantilly laboratory in Virginia, USA. 

This failure, which emerged earlier this month, occurred as a result of an IT issue, according to the HSE, which meant 800 women did not receive a letter with their results.

An investigation into how this happened is now underway, led by the president of DCU, Professor Brian McGrath.

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