Better odds for those in Australia

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 30/06/2014

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If sunshine, high wages and beaches weren't enough, living in Australia also increases your chances of surviving cancer.

Research from Auckland University shows that more than 700 people who die of cancer each year in New Zealand would have survived had they lived across the ditch.

Little had improved since an initial study by Otago University 12 years ago found an almost identical gulf between the two countries' cancer mortality rates.

Auckland University Professor Mark Elwood, an expert in cancer epidemiology, said New Zealand and Australia had similar cancer rates but more Australians survived their brush with death.

Australian men were more likely to be diagnosed with cancer but their Kiwi counterparts died at a higher rate.

Elwood said the gap of about 10 per cent, or 765 deaths a year, was significant but difficult to explain. "But I don't think it is something we should just accept."

Although cancer treatment and detection strategies were similar in both countries, Australia spent more on health and Aussies were generally wealthier.

"Richer countries tend to have better survival rates."

However, the survival gap between the two countries appeared to open up in the first year, suggesting delays between detection and diagnosis could be to blame.

Elwood presented the unpublished findings at the Cancer Control Symposium in Wellington last week, where experts gathered to discuss how to combat the group of diseases that kill about 8000 New Zealanders a year.

The study showed the biggest trans-Tasman disparity was in bowel cancer, which accounted for about half the "excessive" deaths, followed by breast, lung and stomach cancers.

According to the Ministry of Health, New Zealand's bowel cancer death rate is one of the world's highest, with an average of 1244 deaths each year.

Unlike Australia, New Zealand did not have a national screening programme for bowel cancer, although a four-year bowel screening pilot scheme started in the Waitemata District Health Board area in 2011 to assess whether to start a national programme.

The ministry had admitted it was concerned about the health system's ability to cope with a rise in bowel cancer, with district health boards struggling to recruit enough specialists to keep up with demand.

Elwood said it was clear that New Zealand was "behind the play" on bowel cancer and that could be another factor for our lower survival rates.

Cancer Control Trust executive director Betsy Marshall said Elwood's research followed up on an Otago University study, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2002, that also compared New Zealand's cancer mortality rates with Australia's, finding 831 Kiwis would have lived had cancer death rates been the same as in Australia.

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In 2003, the trust co-published the New Zealand Cancer Control Strategy, which it wanted urgently updated, she said.

Last Thursday's forum aimed at looking at how far New Zealand had progressed in the past decade or more in cancer control.

"We are trying to look at which kinds of cancers we are not doing so well in and the reasons behind that and addressing some of those reasons," Marshall said.

"What we are concerned about is looking strategically into the future to see how to make the best of existing resources."

Canadian clinician, scientist and president of the International Cancer Control Congress Association, Dr Simon Sutcliffe, addressed the forum about how to get the best out of cancer resources.

He warned that health care costs globally were unsustainable as the population aged and more people survived communicable diseases.

"If you want to get the greatest gains for the greatest number, then you have to prioritise. That means collecting data and measuring effectiveness so you can have a sharper focus on your resource use around cancer control."

But Health Minister Toby Ryall said the government was already pouring more money into speeding up cancer treatment, including surgery and chemotherapy.

He said he would be announcing a "new fast cancer treatment plan" in the next few weeks.

- The Dominion Post

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