HPV screening of cervical smears delayed due to backlog

The HSE has been asked by the Minister of Health to introduce HPV testing as the primary screening method for the prevention of cervical cancer “as soon as possible.”

This comes after the news that the rollout of the new cervical cancer test has been held up by the backlog of over 70,000 smear tests. Some women still hadn't got results after 27 weeks after their tests with many having to re-do them due to the delay in analysing their original samples.

 Related: 6,000 Irish women may have to re-do their smear tests, the HSE confirms

Why HPV testing?

The HPV test is a more accurate testing mechanism than the current testing mechanism of liquid-based cytology, and its use will apparently result in fewer false negative results, according to a spokesperson for the minister. Though it will not eliminate false negatives completely.

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"There is no doubt that the issues which emerged last year have resulted in operational challenges for the HSE and the Screening Service, and that stabilisation of the programme in 2019 is an important element in supporting the switch to HPV testing," the spokesperson added.

The testing was due to begin in September last year, but now it is uncertain if it will be possible in 2019.

What’s the difference between a smear test and the HPV test?

The smear test detects abnormal cells that may develop into cancer if left untreated.

HPV testing is used to look for the presence of HPV in cervical cells. These tests can detect HPV infections that cause cell abnormalities, sometimes even before cell abnormalities are evident.

Like the smear test, the HPV test is done on a sample of cells collected from the cervix. The HPV vaccine prevents 7 out of 10 cervical cancers and is given to girls in Ireland age of 12 to 13 years.

 Related: 'Do not ignore this': Vicky Phelan urges women to listen to their bodies

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HSE national director Damien McCallion said the backlog would first have to be cleared and the screening service stabilised.

The health committee was also told today that there are 78,000 slides left in the CervicalCheck smear backlog.

Related: Vicky Phelan urges women to continue to go for smear tests despite delay 

HSE officials said that no start date has been committed to for the new HPV test, and it would take at least nine months to sign a contract with the service provider who will undertake and review the tests.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he was "absolutely committed" to rolling out the service, despite the delay.

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