Since 1997 there has been a cumulative additional investment in excess of €550 million in the development of appropriate treatment and care services for people with cancer, including symptomatic breast services. The benefit of the investment is reflected in the significant increase in activity that occurred and breast cancer surgery increased by 39% nationally.
In March 2000 the national breast screening programme commenced. Phase one of the programme covers the Eastern Regional Health Authority, Midland Health Board and North Eastern Health Board areas. Screening is offered every two years, free of charge, to all women in those areas in the target age group of 50 to 64 years. The target population consists of approximately 136,000 women and represents about 50% of the national target population.
Last year I announced the extension of the BreastCheck programme to counties Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford and also the national roll-out to the southern and western counties. When the programme is sufficiently developed and it is assured that a quality service is being delivered at national level, consideration will be given to extending the upper age limit to 69 years. There are no plans to target women below the age of 50 years.
This position is consistent with the report on development of services for symptomatic breast disease. It states that clear proof of the value of population based breast screening has, up to now, been confined to women over the age of 50 years. It is also consistent with a recent recommendation adopted by the European Union. This advocates the introduction of cancer screening programmes that have demonstrated their efficacy having regard to professional expertise and priority setting for health care resources.
Any woman, irrespective of her age or residence, who has immediate concerns or symptoms should contact her GP. She will be referred, where appropriate, to the symptomatic services in her region.