Dáil debates

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Adjournment Debate.

Cancer Screening Programme

8:00 am

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to discuss a matter of significant importance to the lives of the women in my constituency in County Clare. I have put a considerable amount of effort and time into the issue over the years, including during my time in the Seanad. My Seanad colleagues and I sought to have the BreastCheck service rolled out along the western seaboard. For some time prior to that, it had been available on the east coast. A number of colleagues, including former Senator Margaret Cox, championed that cause to ensure that women in the west of Ireland would have the same access to the same level of cancer prevention screening as those on the east coast.

As the Minister is aware, the breast cancer screening programme under the auspices of BreastCheck was set up for the west of Ireland, to be headquartered at University College Hospital , Galway. It was proposed that it would have a number of static units - one in Galway and one in Cork - and a number of mobile units carrying sophisticated equipment. Those would visit the various counties, of which Clare would be one, on a frequent basis to carry out breast screening among the identified target group of women aged 50 to 64. At that time it was estimated the service would be available to approximately 8,000 women in that target group in County Clare.

In 2007, significant advances were made when almost €27 million of capital funding was provided to construct the clinical units at Galway and Cork, and to procure the eight mobile units and the associated state-of-the-art digital screening equipment. That came on-stream, with a major announcement by the Minister in December 2007, in a 12-month period. It was expected at that time that the service was to be rolled out in County Clare in the following ten months. At the same time, €15 million of additional revenue funding was provided to cater for the national roll-out of the entire programme.

Unfortunately, the roll-out of this vital service throughout County Clare has not yet taken place. I accept that a small number of women from the north Clare area have been called to the static unit at University College Hospital in Galway. However, the rest of the county is still waiting. The area with the greatest density of population is not covered.

I urge the Minister to tackle the problem with the agency that has been tasked with rolling out the service at the earliest possible opportunity. Women from the north of County Clare to south-east Clare - from Meelick to Miltown Malbay and back to Doonbeg, and from Whitegate to Loop Head - have the same entitlement to the service as women throughout the country.

I recognise that BreastCheck does some good work, but that is cold comfort to the vast majority of women in County Clare to whom the service is not available. There have been changes in the way in which the health service has been configured in County Clare. The mammography unit at Ennis was closed and, despite some initial protest, it was accepted that the national cancer control strategy, which included the development of centres of excellence at Galway and Limerick together with the roll-out of the BreastCheck programme, gave the best possible outcome for patients. The women of the county accepted that, but they are left waiting for that third component, which must be part of an integrated strategy for the control of cancer in our society.

A number of women in the north Clare area have had the use of facilities since August 2009. It was suggested that during the preceding ten months, there would be a complete roll-out of the service for the rest of the 8,000 women in the county. That has not happened, and I understand that even at this stage a site has not been identified for the location of the mobile unit. I look forward to what the Minister has to say, and I urge her and her Department to put a bit of pressure on our friends in BreastCheck. The organisation has, as I said, done some good work, but that is cold comfort to the lives of so many people who await that vital service.

Photo of Áine BradyÁine Brady (Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People and Health Promotion, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I will take the Adjournment on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney.

I welcome the opportunity to set out the position on breast cancer screening services in County Clare. BreastCheck, the national breast screening programme, provides free breast screening to women aged 50 to 64 area by area. BreastCheck operates from four clinical units based beside hospitals - two in Dublin and one each in Cork and Galway - and a fleet of 15 mobile digital screening units that provide screening to women locally.

The majority of women are offered their mammogram at a BreastCheck mobile digital screening unit to make the service as close, convenient and accessible as possible for women. Factors that influence the choice of a site for a mobile digital screening unit include the capacity of the site to provide necessary utilities, including electricity, plumbing, access to toilet facilities and adequate space. It is preferable that a site can accommodate the unit for the length of time it takes to screen all eligible women in the area, which can be considerable.

BreastCheck uses a range of sites nationwide such as hospital or clinic car parks, civic centres, shopping centre car parks and the grounds of schools or colleges. Screening schedules involve months of careful planning and preparation to ensure women are screened in an organised and efficient manner, and BreastCheck has a duty to fully utilise its available resources at all times.

When BreastCheck was seeking an appropriate location for a mobile site to offer screening to women living in County Clare, it was advised by Clare County Council that planning permission would be required. No other city or county council has ever required planning permission for the temporary location of a mobile breast screening unit. Months of extensive negotiation between Clare County Council and BreastCheck followed.

To commence screening of women in County Clare while negotiations with the council continued, BreastCheck invited more than 300 women living in areas in north County Clare, including Abbey, Boston, Carran, Castletown, Cloghaun, Derreen, Drumcreehy, Gleninagh, Glenroe, Lisdoonvarna, Mountelva and Rathborney, for screening at the BreastCheck western unit in Galway.

Clare County Council has recently waived its requirement for planning permission. That means that BreastCheck can now commence the necessary preparations required to locate a mobile unit in the county. A suitable site has now been selected in the grounds of the county council offices in Ennis. During the coming months, BreastCheck will proceed with the necessary preparations to make the site suitable for delivery of a mobile unit to provide quality assured screening to women in the county. Screening of women is expected to commence in autumn this year.

It is BreastCheck's policy to publicly announce a screening schedule no more than three months in advance, as there is evidence that some women experiencing symptoms of breast cancer are likely to defer seeking a symptomatic referral from their GP and choose to wait for the routine screening.

However, any woman, irrespective of age, who has immediate concerns or symptoms, should contact her GP who will where appropriate refer her to the symptomatic services.

I am pleased that arrangements are now being made for the continued screening of eligible women in Clare, and that screening is expected to commence by autumn.