It is just a few weeks since Croakey wondered whether the policy failures in bowel cancer screening would be an election issue.
In light of health policy’s noticeable absence from the election campaign to date, this now seems a somewhat naïve/foolish question.
If we can’t have a serious election discussion about health, what are the chances of meaningful talk about a subject that many don’t like to mention at the best of times?
Terry Slevin, of the Cancer Council Western Australia, says it’s time for the public to get politically active in pushing for a proper, long-term bowel cancer screening program.
When Adrien Edmunds Red Baron character in Black Adder (series 4) said
‘How lucky you English are to find the toilet so amusing. For us, it is a mundane and functional item. For you it is the basis of an entire culture.’
…was he really capturing the core of why Australia’s next most effective means of preventing cancer deaths was being dismissed by Australian politics?
Confused? Me too.
Bowel cancer kills more Australians than any other cancer except lung cancer and is one of only three cancers (along with breast and cervical cancers) for which population-based screening is recommended.
But the current version of the National Bowel cancer screening program is half ar_ed at best.
In a bizarre form of bowel cancer lottery, people who turn 50, 55 and 65 will be invited, only once, to do a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) in the privacy of their own homes. The test, proven by 4 large scale international trials, (when run properly, meaning testing every 2 years) will reduce bowel cancer deaths by about 30%, or about 30 fewer deaths a week.
So NO ONE gets a fully fledged effective bowel cancer screening, and some get a once off test. By way of example, of those federal MPs who in the 50 – 70 age group who would benefit, about two thirds will get (or have received) the test in the post. The others miss out completely.
So why is it that such a proven screening program is not fully implemented and rolled out? Money? Sure.
However, recent independent analysis shows that the current program could be expanded from a one-off test for 50, 55 and 65-year-olds to a genuine national screening program targeting all Australians aged 50 to 74 for as little as $30 million in addition to the current annual allocation over 15 years.
Add to the fact that we are inevitably going to spend more money on bowel cancer in the future simply because rates are increasing (via the aging population) and the increasing cost of treatment – particularly of advanced stage disease. Screening makes economic sense.
But dig deeper than that, and many suspect it is because the “bowel cancer lobby” do not have the same (even any) grunt as the formidable breast cancer folk. Generally, people who have had bowel cancer are reluctant to talk about their experience and certainly far less likely to form lobby groups, wear brown ribbons and pitch brown people shaped signs into the lawn of Parliament House.
So the Red Baron’s observation about toilet humour, and our discomfort around “talking bums” shows its darker side.
Nonetheless, more than 20,000 concerned folk have quietly emailed their local federal pollie to express their opinion on the importance of bowel cancer screening.
But so far to no avail.
The current program is due to expire on 30 June 2011. There is no commitment on its future, even in its current cheapie form, from Labor or the Coalition.
The National Health and Medical Research Councils recommended the implementation of bowel cancer screening back in 1997. It is close to the time where people who are diagnosed with advanced stage bowel cancer – for which the prognosis is pretty poor, can ask the question – would I be more likely to be alive next year if this program was running properly?
I’d suggest the answer is yes, it is time to ask that question. Ask it of your sitting and aspiring federal MP.
Go on, do it now. Use this link.”
• References available on request