Mammo skeptics seize on U.K. screening debacle

2016 12 06 12 25 03 674 Breast Screening Mammo 400

Skeptics of routine breast screening have seized on the recent computer glitch in the U.K.'s national mammography program to renew their calls that breast screening should be abolished.

Indeed, women who may have missed their final breast screening exam due to the error shouldn't bother getting makeup exams, according to a group of 15 mammography skeptics who signed a letter sent to the Times. In the letter, the group wrote that women who didn't receive screening exams shouldn't worry about getting makeup exams because "screening does not save lives overall and women have been misled into worrying needlessly," according to a 5 May article in the newspaper.

The crisis erupted last week when Public Health England (PHE) disclosed that a computer failure in 2009 resulted in about 450,000 women not being notified to attend their final breast screening exam in the program, which covers women ages 50 to 70. The snafu could have resulted in the deaths of as many as 270 women based on computer models, U.K. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said last week.

But in their letter to the Times, the group of breast screening skeptics advised women to "look this gift horse in the mouth" and only seek help if they have symptoms of breast disease.

"The breast screening program mostly causes more unintended harm than good, which is slowly being recognized internationally," the letter reads. "Many women and doctors now avoid breast screening because it has no impact on all-cause death."

Dr. Susan Bewley.Dr. Susan Bewley.

Signatories to the letter included Dr. Susan Bewley, a professor of women's health at King's College London, who has been a frequent critic of breast screening and in 2016 urged that the U.K. national screening program be stopped in a letter written to BMJ. Another signatory was Dr. Michael Baum, also from University College London, who set up the U.K.'s first breast screening program in 1987 but who now believes that screening's benefits have been exaggerated and its harms ignored.

Bewley goes on to accuse the U.K. screening program of "fear mongering" and called for a review of the initiative. Another signatory, Sir David John Spiegelhalter of the University of Cambridge, questioned the estimate that up to 270 women may have died, saying it was based on "extremely pessimistic assumptions."

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