A growing debate over when women should get routine mammograms intensified yesterday as an advisory panel voted to maintain National Cancer Institute guidelines recommending routine tests beginning at age 40, while a new study suggested most women do not need testing until they're 50.
The 14-1 vote by the institute's civilian advisory panel -- made up of scientists, medical specialists and lay members -- was contrary to advice from the NCI staff and a scientific board that suggested earlier this year that women under age 50 do not need annual mammogram screening for signs of tumors.
Dr. Edward Sondik, deputy director of the NCI's Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, said the agency is aware that the conflicting recommendations might confuse people, adding, "For that I am sorry."
The vote was also contrary to the Clinton administration's proposed health-care plan, which suggests routine mammography only after age 50. That position has been criticized by several groups, including the American Cancer Society, which supports earlier screening.
Dr. Janet Osuch, head of a Cancer Society advisory committee, urged women to continue getting mammograms annually, or at least once every two years, between ages 40 and 49. After age 50, the society recommends annual mammograms.
But a new study released yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, reinforces the view that there is little utility in testing younger women.
The researchers did advocate screening for younger women if they are known to be at special risk for breast cancer. These women include members of families with a history of breast tumors.