At least 1000 New Zealanders will die unnecessarily from bowel cancer while the Government dithers on rolling out a national screening programme.
That's the dire prediction of Beat Bowel Cancer Aotearoa chief executive Megan Smith, who is calling on health minister Tony Ryall to expand a successful Waitemata-based bowel screening pilot programme to the rest of the country as soon as possible.
However Mr Ryall said the ministry needed to know precisely how much the rollout would cost, and whether health organisations had the workforce and resources to carry it out, before it could commit to a nationwide version.
The programme, which began in 2011 in the Waitemata District Health Board region, was producing great results, including identifying 129 people with bowel cancer, Ms Smith said.
But with an official evaluation of the pilot not due until 2016 and several more years before a national programme is introduced, people would continue to die from a disease that is treatable and beatable if caught early, she said.
The latest results from the Waitemata pilot showed that between January 2012 and September 2013, 55 per cent of the 107,637 people invited to take part in the free screening programme returned a correctly completed screening kit that could be tested by a laboratory. As a result, 129 people who had a colonoscopy were found to have cancer.
"Although the results reflect an increased awareness of bowel cancer and a willingness to be screened . . . a significant number of New Zealanders will die as a result of further delay by the Government to implement a nationwide screening programme," Ms Smith said.
All New Zealanders between 50 to 74 years old should have the opportunity to be screened for bowel cancer, she said.
"Realistically we may not see a national screening programme in place until 2020, so we urge the Government to readdress its timeline in order to prevent the many precious lives being lost unnecessarily due to late diagnosis."
As well as finding cancers, the pilot was also detecting pre-cancerous polyps, which grow on the wall of the bowel.
As many New Zealanders lost their lives to bowel cancer each year as breast and prostate cancer combined, and four times as many as the national road toll.
"In the absence of a national screening programme, people outside the Waitamata DHB area who are in the recommended age group . . . or have a family history should speak to their doctor about screening."
Alternatively, bowel screening test kits can be purchased over the counter at some pharmacies or through a secure, online purchase at beatbowelcancer.org.nz.
Mr Ryall said two key questions that needed to be answered before a national rollout could proceed.
"The first is whether the programme is cost effective. This is expected to be answered by mid-2016. The second is the need to ensure we have the capacity to deal with the additional demand generated by a national rollout, which is part of the work being progressed.
"It's worth noting that in the 2012/13 financial year, 41,000 colonoscopies were performed by district health boards - a 20 per cent increase compared to 2008/09.
"There are also efforts to reduce wait times for colonoscopies - part of the $16 million faster diagnostics project. The $1.8m endoscopy quality improvement programme, trialled at four DHBs, has been rolled out to all DHBs."
As well as advocating for a screening programme, Beat Bowel Cancer Aotearoa raises awareness of the disease and its symptoms.
They include bleeding from the bottom or seeing blood in the toilet after a bowel motion; a change of bowel motions over several weeks without returning to normal; persistent or periodic severe pain in the abdomen; a lump or mass in the abdomen; tiredness and loss of weight for no particular reason; and anaemia.