The Government has been accused of having death on its hands over the decision to stick to a four-year Waitemata DHB-region bowel cancer screening pilot, rather than start rolling out a national screening programme.

New Zealand’s rates of bowel cancer are among the highest in the world, and our outcomes are among the worst. More than 100 Kiwis die of bowel cancer each month, similar to the number who die from breast cancer and prostrate cancer combined.

If New Zealand had the same bowel cancer outcomes as Australia — where colonoscopy rates are 21.5/1000 compared to 9.3/1000 here — 350 fewer lives would be lost each year.

Without a national screening programme (which would cost $60-$70 million a year) patients are likelier to have an advanced stage of cancer when diagnosed, with lower chances for survival.

Further evidence of the desirability and efficacy of cancer screening programmes came last week when the World Health Organisation updated its Code Against Cancer to include state-backed screening programmes.

“The wait for this Government to roll out national bowel cancer screening is completely intolerable,” says Beat Bowel Cancer Aotearoa chief executive Megan Smith.

Over the first two years of the pilot in Waitemata, 164 people who were exhibiting no symptoms were diagnosed with bowel cancer — mostly at an early stage, when there is good potential for cure.

The pilot has now entered a two-year incidence phase, which Mrs Smith describes as “nothing more than a delaying tactic”. “Waiting for the unduly long pilot to draw to a death-defying conclusion rather than rolling out a phased screening programme nationally is now leaving this Government with death on their hands.”

Mrs Smith is calling on John Key and new Health Minister Jonathan Coleman to announce the rollout of a national bowel cancer screening programme modelled on the Waitemata pilot.

“Give these Kiwis the same priority as the road toll, which takes five times fewer lives each year compared to bowel cancer.”