The Health Minister has defended progress being made to introduce national screening for bowel cancer, following studies showing death rates from cancer are much higher in New Zealand than Australia.

Medical researchers say the difference in death rates are costing hundreds of lives every year.

Studies published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today show death rates from cancer in this country are 10 percent higher than across the Tasman.

Medical specialists say it’s disappointing, and appalling inaction over bowel cancer screening is partly to blame.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said the Government was doing a huge amount of work to pave the way for national screening including a pilot programme at Waitemata in Auckland. He said the start date for national screening could not be announced until it was certain the workforce was in place and the technology available to provide a quality service.

Researchers studied the incidence and death rates from cancer in both countries for the years 1996-97 and 2006-07.

They found that over the 11-year time period, cancer-specific death rates decreased in both countries and cancer mortality fell in both countries, but there was no change in the difference between the death rates New Zealand and Australia. These rates remained 10 percent higher in New Zealand.

Mr Ryall said other improvements over the past six years will already have reduced the gap with Australia.

But a lobby group says the Government is acting unethically by waiting to introduce a national screening programme for bowel cancer. The chief executive of Beat Bowel Cancer Aotearoa says that’s largely due to differences in early detection and screening for the disease.

Megan Smith says the Government is waiting for the end of the pilot programme in Waitemata, but 100 people lose their lives to bowel cancer a month – and that wait is unthinkable and unethical.

Brent Wray had bowel cancer and said he was lucky that he was eligible for it the pilot programme, because it saved his life.
“I had absolutely no symptoms at all, I felt well. There must have been an angel on my shoulder or something that was in the Waitemata district to be able to be in the screening programme. Otherwise, you’d have probably been ringing 0800 Heaven by now.”