The findings are reported in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA).
The latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reveal over 13,000 new cases of bowel cancer each year and over 4000 deaths from this very preventable disease. This makes bowel cancer the second most common cancer in Australia behind prostate cancer and the second biggest cause of cancer death behind lung cancer.
Lead author and research fellow from the University of Sydney’s Screening and Test Evaluation Program, Kathy Flitcroft, said an evidence-based bowel cancer screening program had the potential to save 1000 of these lives, equivalent to a full Boeing 747 plane.
“Our study published in the MJA today showed a lack of adequate funding for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program has led to it being partially implemented on the basis of what the Australian Government has decided it can afford, rather than being based on proven research evidence of how a program should be implemented in order for it to be effective,” she said.
Paper co-author and Sydney GP, Associate Professor Lyndal Trevena said National Health and Medical Research Centre (NHMRC) guidelines recommended offering faecal occult blood test (FOBT) screening for bowel cancer to all people aged over 50 years of age every two years.
“But the Federal Government is currently offering once-only screening to those aged 50, 55 and 65 years old,” she said.
“By not following the NHMRC guidelines, the Federal Government is offering a program that is unlikely to deliver the 25 per cent reduction in deaths from bowel cancer that a more evidence-based approach would be expected to achieve.
“Bowel cancer screening, like breast and cervical cancer screening, needs to be repeated every two years to be effective, and should be offered to the entire age range of those most at risk, not just selected ages within that age range.
“This partial program is like offering one dose of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination to children aged two years, when in order for it to be work, it needs to be given in two doses, when children are one and four years old.”
Associate Professor Trevena described bowel cancer screening as the “poor cousin” of organised screening programs in Australia.
Ms Flitcroft noted successive federal governments have not provided enough funding for it to be delivered in the way the research evidence dictates.
“The current program is certainly better than no screening at all, but it could be so much better,” she said.
“We are urging the general public to get behind bowel cancer screening in order to put pressure on the Federal Government to fund it properly. This would minimise the number of people dying unnecessarily from this very preventable disease.”
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