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Breast screening failures may have affected more women than originally thought

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According to press reports, a leading cancer expert believes many more women in England may not have received breast screening invitations than previously thought. Public Health England discovered in January 2018 that some 450,000 women aged 68-71 had not received their final invitation for breast screening due to a computer failure going back to 2009.

However, the BBC reported that Professor Peter Sasieni, professor of cancer prevention at King's College London and lead investigator of the Cancer Research UK programme in cancer screening and statistics, claims the problems went back further to 2005 and could have been spotted earlier.

Professor Sasieni looked at data from the breast cancer screening programme in England from 2004 to 2017. He claims that the percentage of 65-70 year old eligible women invited for screening was consistently less than those aged 55-64, dating back to 2004-05 when the breast screening programme was first extended to include women up to the age of 71.

Professor Sasieni’s conclusions suggest that an additional 140,000 women were missed, bringing the total of those potentially affected to more than 502,000. Although in his letter to The Lancet he said that the issue should not be seen as a major public health failure and women should not feel anxious, he nonetheless felt that it was right to investigate how this error occurred and why it was not spotted for so long. He is quoted as saying:

‘Data that could have alerted people to the lack of invitations being sent to women aged 70 was publicly available, but no one looked at it carefully enough. It is important that the computer systems used to run our cancer screening programmes are reviewed and, if necessary replaced - and that detailed anonymous data are made available for independent scrutiny.’

Public Health England has said Professor Sasieni’s analysis is flawed, however Sarah Harper, a senior associate with Access Legal Solicitors presently investigating the case of Zina Merry has expressed concern. Zina received treatment only after she had personally taken the initiative rather than trusting the system as so many others may have done and maintains that, due to similar administrative errors, she was not followed up as promptly as her condition warranted. Sarah Harper commented:

‘It is disturbing to hear that, as many suspected, even more women could have been affected by missed screening invitations. Computer errors such as this tend to have many more unforeseen consequences and a cascade of potential harm can result from even a simple glitch. Public Health England must make clear the full extent of the error, the numbers involved and the actions they are taking to put things right as soon as possible.’

 
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