The value of screening by Clinical Examination of the Breast (CBE) as a means of reducing mortality from breast cancer (BC) is not established. The issue is relevant, as CBE may be a suitable option for countries in economic transition, where incidence rates are on the increase but limited resources do not permit screening by mammography. Our aims were to assess whether mass screening by CBE carried out by trained para-medical personnel is feasible in an urban population of a low-income country, and its efficacy in reducing BC mortality. Our study was designed as a randomised controlled trial of the effect on BC mortality of 5 annual CBE carried out by trained nurses. The target population was women aged 35–64 years, resident in 12 municipalities of the National Capital Region of Manila, Philippines. The units of randomization were the 202 health centres (HC) within the selected municipalities. During 1995 nurses and midwives were recruited and trained in performing CBE. The first round of screening took place in 1996–1997. The intervention however showed a refractory attitude of the population with respect to clinical follow-up and was discontinued after the completion of the first screening round. Cases of breast cancer occurring in the study population during 1996–1999 were identified by the 2 local population-based registries. In the single screening round 151,168 women were interviewed and offered CBE, 92% accepted (138,392), 3,479 were detected positive for a lump and referred for diagnosis. Of these only 1220 women (35%) completed diagnostic follow-up, whereas 42.4% actively refused further investigation even with home visits, and 22.5% were not traced. Of 53 cases that occurred among screen-positive women in the 2 years after CBE only 34 were diagnosed through the intervention. Eighty cases occurred among screen-negative women. The test sensitivity for CBE repeated annually was 53.2%. The actual sensitivity of the programme was 25.6% and positive predictive value 1%. Screen-detected cases were non-significantly less advanced than the others. Previous studies have shown that most breast cancer cases in the Philippines present at advanced stages and have an unfavourable outcome. Although CBE undertaken by health workers seems to offer a cost-effective approach to reducing mortality, the sensitivity of the screening programme in the real context was low. Moreover, in this relatively well-educated population, cultural and logistic barriers to seeking diagnosis and treatment persist and need to be addressed before any screening programme is introduced. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.