Tuesday, July 28, 1998 Published at 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
A test of confidence for cervical screening
Women are screened between the ages of 20 and 65
The confidence of women in the cervical screening programme in the UK has been undermined by a series of errors in the way labs have analysed smear tests.
The most serious problem occurred in 1996 at Kent and Canterbury Hospital, where at least eight women died and 90,000 were recalled after screening errors led to the early signs of cancer in some tests being missed.
Other recent cases include:
Eighty of the 181 laboratories had too many or too few "inadequate" smears, 34 were deemed to be too small to meet government efficiency targets and some were criticised for taking too long - up to nine weeks in some cases - to examine smears.
In an effort to improve standards, the former Chief Medical Officer Sir Kenneth Calman announced a series of measures. He wanted:
A subsequent report, published by the National Audit Office in 1998, found faults at every stage of the cervical screening programme. It also criticised the length of time women had to wait for their results.
Falling death rates
Nearly 4.5 million smears are examined by pathology laboratories each year. Despite the recent scare stories, the service is generally regarded as a major success.
Cervical screening is a method of detecting pre-cancerous changes in a woman's cervix, or the neck of the womb. It is the most common cancer among women in England under the age of 35 years.
Women are currently screened at least every five years from the age of 20 to 65.