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Many ignoring life-saving test

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Bowel cancer screening rates are slipping despite evidence that early detection of abnormalities can save lives.

Little more than a third of the 930,000 people offered a bowel cancer test in 2011-12 took part in the screening program, underlining calls on the Government to intensify its efforts promoting the scheme.

A report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that 35 per cent of those invited to take part in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program in 2011-12 completed a screening test for analysis, compared with 38 per cent in the preceding three years.

The Institute found that participation declined across all three age groups eligible at the time – 50, 55 and 60-year-olds, though the Government has since expanded the program to include 60-year-olds as at 1 July.

Of those who did take part, 7 per cent (about 22,500) returned test results showing bowel abnormalities that required follow-up assessment.

Of these, 72 per cent underwent a colonoscopy, leading to diagnosis of confirmed or suspected cancer in 404 cases, with advanced adenomas (potentially cancerous growths) identified in a further 857 cases.

Bowel cancer is one of the nation’s biggest killers, accounting for an average 80 deaths a week, though treatment can be effective if the disease is detected early enough.

The Government expects that 5.4 million people will be offered a free screening test under the expanded program in the next four years including, from 1 July 2015, 70-year-olds.

But Cancer Council Australia Chief Executive Officer Professor Ian Olver said Government was taking too long to fully implement a comprehensive screening program, and lives were being lost as a result.

“People who are not eligible for the program but should be, and those who are but don’t take the test, are dying unnecessarily,” Professor Olver said.

He said that although the gradual expansion of the program was welcome, it was taking too long and was people were deterred because of uncertainty about eligibility.

“We’re pleased the Government has boosted its communications to support the program this financial year, including funding a campaign Cancer Council will run,” Professor Olver said. “However, the confusion caused by the limited eligibility will continue to be a problem. What we need is a plan for full implementation from the next Australian Government.”

Adrian Rollins