AN increase in the minimum time between smear tests is a "good news story" but instead left women worried, health minister Eluned Morgan has said. 

The change prompted more than one million people to sign a petition to the Welsh Government calling for the reinstatement of three year tests and the way it was announced has been roundly condemned by Senedd Members. 

During a debate this afternoon, prompted by the petition, health minister Eluned Morgan reassured members that extending the period between tests for most women aged 25 to 49 was made in response to the scientific advice from the UK National Screening Committee which advises all four of the UK’s chief medical officers. 

“Its recommendations are based on years of research and consultation,” said Ms Morgan: “This should be a good news story yet has somehow or other created a real sense of anxiety in our communities.” 

Public Health Wales has already apologised for how it announced the change which means most women will be invited for cervical screening every five rather than three years. 

The change was made following advice which recommended the five year gap between tests due to the use of HPV tests which are more sensitive and effective and as a result most women aged 25 to 49 can, as those aged 50 to 64 are, be tested every five years rather than three. 

But social media posts by Public Helath Wales on January 4, stating the time between test had increased prompted huge concern. In days more than 30,000 people signed a petition on the Senedd website while there have been 1.2 million signatures on a Change.org petition which called for the Welsh Government to reinstate three-year screening. 

“That is over 100,000 more people than voted in last May ‘s Senedd elections and demonstrates the strength of feeling,” said Jack Sargeant the chair of the petition’s committee which asked the petitioner to close her petition early so it could be brought forward for today’s urgent debate

“Social media should not have been used as a way to announce such an important issue,” said the Labour MS who argued it should have been announced in the Senedd. 

Many members, he said, will have received emails from women “fearing they are bearing the brunt of a cost-saving and time-saving measure”. 

Plaid Cymru’s Rhun ap Iorweth said he was also initially concerned: “It left many worried this could be a result of current pressure before it became apparent we’re not talking about a downgrading but a serious failure to explain a change we should celebrating in terms preventative health care.” 

The Ynys Mon MS praised Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, and other charities, for “stepping in and explaining” the reasons behind the change. 

Conservative Laura Anne Jones said Public Health Wales had caused “panic” due to a “snappy headline on social media”. 

She said she was among those concerned and was close to tears when she mentioned the former reality television star Jade Goody who had died from cervical cancer in 2009. 

The star’s high profile death had prompted “many women who hadn’t even thought about screening” to come forward and the South Wales East MS said the Welsh Government should consider how it could launch a publicity drive to increase awareness of screening. 

Labour’s Buffy Williams said women should have the option of whether they want to attend screening at three or five years or “anywhere in between”. The Rhondda MS also said the appointments also act as an important “wellness check” and could be the only time some women suffering from domestic abuse attend a medical appointment alone. 

However Labour MS Jenny Rathbone, warned against fueling fears over the change: “I don’t think persisting with this inaccuracy is at all helpful.” 

Instead the Labour member said more work should be done on targeting those with caring responsibilities, or working zero hour contracts, who find themselves unable to attend screening appointments. 

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Responding to the debate, health minister Ms Morgan said she had met with Public Health Wales to discuss the “calamitous way” the change had been announced and it is reviewing how it communicates public health messages. 

She said the extended period between tests doesn’t apply to those found to have high risk HPV, the virus that can cause cell changes and cervical cancer, who will be offered annual screening. 

“We are focusing on those more at risk,” said the minister: “It has not been made to save resources; investing in preventative services is more cost effective.” 

She also said the change isn’t a result of the HPV vaccine offered to school girls with those first vaccinated at 13 only now entering screening age but it is anticipated the enhanced screening test and the vaccine programme will reduce cervical cancer rates. 

Screening for those without HPV detected will be every five, rather than three, years and the minister said the risk of cell changes developing in that period for those women is “very low”. 

On wider health concerns and contact with those subjected to domestic violence the minister said: “It is very important how we use clincial interventions.” 

A screening at home pilot in England is also being followed by the Welsh Government and it is also looking how a test home programme for bowel cancer is operating. 

At present, she said, a quarter of women invited to screening do not attend appointments and “this is an opportunity to encourage more people to come forward.” 

Petition committee chair Mr Sargeant said the debate showed it was clear more work needed to be done to convince women on the changes. The Senedd agreed to note the petition. 

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