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Friday, January 30, 1998 Published at 18:11 GMT


Faulty smear test 'killed eight'
image: [ Women affected by faulty tests arrive at the press conference to hear the report's findings ]
Women affected by faulty tests arrive at the press conference to hear the report's findings

A report into Britain's worst smear test scare has revealed eight women may have died as a result, three more than previously thought, and that the final toll could be even higher.

The investigation into a catalogue of blunders at Kent and Canterbury Hospital also discovered 30 women had hysterectomies in a bid to beat cancer which was not diagnosed early enough.

Staff had to re-check 91,000 smears taken between 1990 and 1995 after problems with the hospital's screening service were discovered.

Initial findings indicated five women lost their lives but further checks have revealed three more deaths.

Potential victims untraced

The report suggests that figures for the numbers of women who have died or developed cancer could still increase further.

Staff have not been able to contact more than 1,300 women who may need follow-up treatment or repeat tests.

No disciplinary action has been taken against any individual over the faulty tests. The hospital says all those involved have either resigned, retired or moved to work elsewhere.

NHS apology

The report was published by the Kent and Canterbury Hospitals NHS Trust and East Kent Health Authority after pressure from Sir William Wells, chairman of South Thames NHS Region.

[ image: More than 90,000 tests taken between 1990 and 1995 were restested]
More than 90,000 tests taken between 1990 and 1995 were restested
Sir William, who chaired the independent review, said: "It is clear that serious harm has been caused to a number of women by the errors in the screening service at Kent and Canterbury. This I deeply regret and on behalf of the NHS I once again convey my apologies to all those affected."

The report was presented at the hospital today following a highly critical inquiry last October and an announcement of a major shake-up in the screening programme in December by Chief Medical Officer Sir Kenneth Calman.

Fight for compensation

Sarah Harman, a solicitor acting on behalf of 90 women affected by the case, said: "I am shocked by the new figures - and it could go far higher. We still don't know about problems which arose before 1990."

She said the earliest misreported smear test which the hospital has admitted to was in 1984. The woman concerned has since had a hysterectomy.

"Many of the women are facing a bitter legal battle for compensation on top of everything else and are being forced to fight inch by inch.

"The hospital is demanding that they have more and more tests by more and more experts, it is very demoralising. These women are very ill-equipped to take on these legal cases because they are already fighting cancer."

One victim is Julie Graves, 41, from Faversham, Kent, who had an emergency hysterectomy in September 1996 after a routine smear test showed she had cancer.

Previous tests in 1985, 1987 and 1992 had all shown up negative - results which she now claims were wrong.

[ image: Solicitor Sarah Harman: shocked that the  final death toll is still unknown]
Solicitor Sarah Harman: shocked that the final death toll is still unknown
She said: "I was very angry, I would not have had to have a hysterectomy if these smear tests had been read correctly.

"From July to September 1996 I really honestly thought I was going to die, I didn't know how long the cancer had been going on.

"I have three children who I look after on my own and I just didn't know if I was going to be there for them. I was terrified. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat and I wasn't interested in anything.

"I'm a bit saddened that they made such a point today of the word `may' when talking about the extent of people affected, but I hope the lesson has been learnt," she added.

Restoring confidence

Health Minister Baroness Jay said: "These women and their families have been badly betrayed. We intend to do our utmost to ensure it does not happen again.

"We are determined to restore public confidence in the screening process and already we have announced an action plan whereby all laboratories must apply for external quality accreditation and staff must take refresher training where needed.

"I cannot emphasise strongly enough that women should continue to attend for screening for both breast and cervical cancer because, despite, what has gone wrong, this remains the best way to ensure early and effective treatment."

Any woman who was tested by the trust and wants more details should contact the hospital helpline on 01227 766016.

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