WOMEN could wait months for smear tests results as the planned closure of dozens of screening laboratories has left the health service in “meltdown”, experts have told.
A major new government campaign to encourage women to book a cervical cancer screening has coincided with the decision to shut 41 labs.
The restructuring process will reduce nearly 50 hospital screening laboratories to just nine this summer, resulting in a backlog of samples waiting to be tested.
Alison Cropper, chairwoman of the British Association for Cytopathology, said that the Public Health England (PHE) campaign had come at “the worst time there could possibly have been”.
The consultant biomedical scientist told the Guardian: “The service is in meltdown.”
It is a complete shambles
Anonymous senior biomedical scientist
She also said the wording on standard screening letters advising results will be sent within 14 days, despite warning that some labs already face a backlog of several months.
Mrs Cropper added that while the quality of testing is not likely to be affected, the “poorly thought-out” timing of the campaign could leave women frustrated and less likely to engage with screening in the future.
The government rolled out its first cervical screening campaign at the beginning of the month after figures revealed the uptake was at a 20-year low.
It came as many scientists are leaving following a decision to centralise the screening system.
Traditional screening involves looking for abnormal changes to cells of the cervix to indicate the early stage of cancer.
Samples which show possible low-grade changes are then tested for human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes almost all cases of cervical cancer.
SILENT KILLER – The 5 early warning signs to watch out for
Early signs can include:
1. Abnormal bleeding (during or after sex, between periods and also post-menopause)period
The most common and earliest sign of cervical cancer tends to be irregular bleeding.
It happens when the cancer cells grow on the tissue below the cervix.
It’s an especially alarming sign in postmenopausal women who no longer have periods. There’s no age limit to developing cervical cancer.
2. Unusual vaginal discharge
Everyone’s discharge is different, so it’s a case of knowing what is normal for you.
If you find that the colour, smell and consistency has changed, then that’s something you really need to have checked out.
When cancer lacks oxygen, it can cause an infection which leads to strange smelling discharge.
3. Discomfort or pain during sex
Pain during sex can be a sign of a number of different issues, but one is cervical cancer.
Because the disease often comes with no symptoms, pain during intercourse is one of the key indicators. It can be a sign that the cancer is spreading to surrounding tissues.
4. Lower back pain
It could be down to you straining something in the gym, or it could be a warning sign that something’s wrong with your reproductive organs.
Persistent pain – just one off twinges – in the lower back, pelvis or appendix can be a symptom of cervical cancer.
5. Unintended weight loss
While effortless weight loss might sound like the answer to many of our prayers, it’s never a good sign if it happens seemingly without cause.
A loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss tend to be signs that the body isn’t working properly – it’s trying to conserve energy. If you notice that you’re not eating as you normally do, go to your GP.
But research has found that switching the testing to HPV first is more effective and the NHS will move to this system later this year, resulting in the reduction of labs.
A senior biomedical scientist at a small hospital lab that will be closed later this year as part of the new process told the newspaper that almost half the staff had left while the number of samples coming in had increased fivefold.
The scientist, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “It is a complete shambles.”
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Cervical screenings are free on the NHS for women aged 25 to 64.
Anne Mackie, PHE’s director of screening, said: “Screening can stop cancer before it starts and estimates show that if everyone attended regularly 83 per cent of deaths could be prevented.
“Since the programme began, an estimated 5,000 lives a year have been saved, but cervical screening numbers are at a 20-year low.”
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