Beating bowel cancer together

Northern Ireland announce roll out of new bowel cancer screening test

Monday 8 April 2019

After years of campaigning, today the Department of Health in Northern Ireland pledge to replace the bowel cancer screening test in Northern Ireland with the new, more accurate Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) from early 2020.

Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in Northern Ireland with around 400 people dying from the disease every year. However bowel cancer is treatable and curable especially if diagnosed early. Screening provides the best way to detect the disease at an early stage when treatment has the best chance of working. Nearly everyone diagnosed at the earliest stage will survive, however this drops significantly as the disease develops.

It’s been more than two years since the UK National Screening Committee recommended that all nations should introduce FIT to their respective screening programmes. Following on from this, the charity wrote to the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health, Mr Richard Pengelly, in August 2018 expressing concern that Northern Ireland had yet to commit to introducing FIT, despite not needing ministerial approval to do so. 

The benefits of FIT are well established. The test has been proven to be significantly more accurate, with the potential to detect more cancers and four times as many adenomas. It is also much easier to complete than the current screening test as only one sample is needed, instead of three. Pilots have also shown to increase uptake by around 10 per cent, and most importantly in those that have previously ignored the test and people living in deprived areas.

Scotland introduced FIT in November 2017 and has seen levels of participation rise to record highs. Statistics show that from November 2017 to April 2018, 64% of those eligible returned their FIT. In the same period the year before, uptake of the previous test was 56%. The biggest improvement in participation with FIT has been amongst those living in the most deprived areas – up from 42.0% to 51.8%.

Last month, Mr Pengelly announced plans to commission a new cancer strategy for Northern Ireland, to replace the current one which is over a decade old. This strategy must include a commitment for an optimal bowel cancer screening programme, which includes lowering the screening age and more diagnostic capacity for overstretched services to support the delivery of this life-saving initiative. 

Deborah Alsina MBE, Chief Executive of Bowel Cancer UK: “We are delighted that the Department of Health has finally committed to roll out the new, potentially more accurate Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) in Northern Ireland from 2020, meaning that all four nations of the UK will now have access to this lifesaving test. Bowel Cancer UK, in collaboration with other charities, have long called for this announcement as the new screening test is a game-changer for bowel cancer.

“It has the potential to detect thousands more cancers earlier, meaning we can save more lives from Northern Ireland’s second biggest cancer killer.

“We look forward to working closely with the Northern Ireland government and other health bodies to ensure an optimal screening programme is delivered in Northern Ireland.”

Currently in Northern Ireland if you’re registered with a GP and aged 60-74, you will receive a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) in the post every two years. Using the cardboard sticks provided, you will be asked to provide two small samples of poo onto a special screening card. You will need to do this three times over a 10 day period. The test looks for hidden blood in your poo, which could be an early sign of bowel cancer.

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