Cancer cells in the cervix
Image: Getty

After 18 women died from cervical cancer despite initially receiving false negatives from Ireland’s national cervical screening program, that country is now changing the way they test for cervical cancer and HPV.

In April 2018, it was discovered that between 2010 and 2014, at least 208 women had received negative results for cancer smear tests where there were actually clear signs of cancer, the New York Times reported. Those 208 women should have received full testing and only 46 of those women were actually informed of the false results. Because of this, now 18 of those 208 women have died of cancer when they could have been receiving treatment earlier.

After the news broke, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar apologized to the Irish public for the mistake and launched an investigation. CNN reports that Ireland’s screening program CervicalCheck will now move to primary HPV screenings, which reportedly help detect cancer cells earlier than routine pap smears. Health Service Executive, Ireland’s public health services provider, is also trying to figure out what went wrong, looking closely at how the screening tests were processed in two labs in Ireland and one in the United States.

The errors in cervical screenings came to light last year after Vicky Phelan sued the Irish Health Service Executive and the US laboratory which screened her results and misread them in 2011. Phelan wasn’t informed for 15 months after the error was initially identified, and her cancer is now inoperable. “If I had been told this information sooner, two years ago, that my cancer was two years older than I knew it to be, I would have been insistent on a lot more scans,” she told CNN.