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‘No evidence’ breast screening has cut cancer deaths

Breast cancer screening programmes have yet to show a reduction in the number of women who die from the disease, researchers said.

A new study suggests that there is “no evidence” that screening women for breast cancer has an effect on mortality.

There has been fierce debate about the value of such screening programmes.

While mortality rates for breast cancer have significantly declined since the 1980s, some critics have said that breast cancer screening programmes do more harm than good and lead to many women undergoing unnecessary surgery.

In response to the controversy, the Department of Health commissioned an review into the risks and benefits in 2011. The independent panel concluded that there was a 20% relative reduction in mortality from breast cancer in women invited to screening.

But the latest research, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, contests the findings.

The authors wrote: “We permuted the data in a number of different ways, over an observation period of 39 years, but the data show that, at least as yet, there is no evidence of an effect of mammographic screening on population-level breast cancer mortality.”

The research analysed mortality trends across England before and after the introduction of the NHS Breast Screening Programme in 1988.

Researchers from the department of public health at the University of Oxford also specifically looked at mortality statistics from the Oxford region because it was the only area in the country which recorded all causes of death on the death certificate, not just the underlying cause, prior to the commencement of the programme.

They concluded that population-based mortality statistics for England do not show a past benefit of breast cancer screening.

Lead researcher Toqir Mukhtar said that while the new results do not rule out a benefit of breast cancer screening at the level of individual women, “the effects are not large enough to be detected at the population level”.

“Measuring the effectiveness of mammography screening is a fundamental area of concern in countries which have established mammography screening programmes,” she said.

“Clinical trials have indicated that several years have to elapse between the start of screening and the emergence of a reduction in mortality. Yet our data shows that there is no evidence of an effect of mammographic screening on breast cancer mortality at the population level over an observation period of almost 40 years.”

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