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Governments mislead women about breast-cancer screening

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Women over the age of 50 are encouraged to have regular mammogram screening-but this advice is based on evidence that is 25 years old and which has since been proven wrong


Women over the age of 50 are encouraged to have regular mammogram screening-but this advice is based on evidence that is 25 years old and which has since been proven wrong.
Health agencies, such as the UK's National Health Service, are down-playing the very real risks of mammogram screening and exaggerating the benefits, say researchers from the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Denmark.
Even the very latest leaflets about the mammogram service in the UK continue to perpetuate the myths about the benefits of regular screenings, although health officials had promised to modify their advice to women in the light of new research published over the past five years.
"If screening was a drug, it would have been withdrawn. You don't market a drug that harms so many people for such uncertain benefit," said researcher Peter Gotzsche, director of the Nordic Cochrane Centre.
Mammograms detect all breast abnormalities, many of which are benign and, yet, are still treated-unnecessarily-with surgery, radio-therapy and chemotherapy. The Cochrane researchers estimate that for every case of aggressive breast cancer that mammograms discover, they also find 10 benign cases that could be left well alone (J R Soc Med, 2011; 104: 361-9).
  • Breast cancer isn't quite the deadly disease it once was-but doctors can't explain why. The one thing they do know is that intensive screening programmes have had nothing to do with the sudden drop in the number of women dying of the disease.
Breast-cancer deaths have been falling dramatically across Europe since 1989; in Northern Ireland, deaths have fallen by 29 per cent, in the Netherlands by 25 per cent, in Belgium by 20 per cent and by 24 per cent in Norway.
But it appears that breast screening programmes have had little to do with these reductions. Some of the countries that have seen falls in the numbers of cases do not have full screening programmes in place, and most of the reductions have been in women aged between 40 and 49, who may not have even started to be screened, researchers have discovered (BMJ, 2011; 343: d4411).

WDDTY 22 no 7, October 2011


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