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31-07-2011 | General practice | Article

Breast screening questioned


BMJ 2011; 343: d4411

Recent falls in the number of women dying from breast cancer are not directly related to breast screening programmes, report researchers.

Their study, published in the BMJ, compared breast cancer mortality rates between three pairs of neighbouring European countries. It showed that reductions in mortality were similar between the countries in each case, despite mammography screening programmes being introduced 10-15 years apart.

The investigators, led by Dr Philippe Autier (International Prevention Research Institute, Lyon, France), say that the reductions in breast cancer deaths are likely to be the result of improved treatment and service provision.

Dr Autier told the BBC: "There is a real question about the benefits of breast screening," adding that "a much more targeted approach" is needed.

In a letter to The Sunday Times yesterday, a group of UK clinicians led by Professor Michael Baum (University College London) said the study "may be the last straw that breaks the back of population-based screening for breast cancer".

Previous campaigns to highlight the potential risks of breast screening led to a change in NHS information leaflets for women. But Professor Baum and his cosignatories say these remain "patronising, coercive in tone and parsimonious with the facts and in breach of General Medical Council ethical guidelines". They say they are now seeking an independent judicial review of the information.

Professor Julietta Patnick CBE, Director of NHS Cancer Screening Programmes said in a statement: "We can't comment on screening programmes in other countries but here in England we do know that the best evidence available shows that women aged 50-69 years who are regularly screened are less likely to die from breast cancer."

GP News is an independent clinical news service provided by Springer Healthcare Limited. © Springer Healthcare Ltd; 2011

By Caroline Price