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Thursday, May 20, 1999 Published at 15:46 GMT 16:46 UK


PM's cancer drive 'depends on cash'

The group will discuss improved cancer screening

Prime Minister Tony Blair's drive to improve cancer treatment in the UK will fail unless substantial resources are made available, experts have warned.

BBC Health Correspondent Fergus Walsh: "Cancer care in the NHS is a lottery"
Mr Blair wants to cut cancer deaths in the UK by 60,000 over the next ten years.

The UK has some of the worst cancer survival rates in Europe. Currently, 69,000 people die of cancer in the UK each year.

The prime minister announced an action plan at a top level meeting with cancer experts, health ministers and the Chief Medical Officer on Thursday.

Measures include:

  • The creation of a highly-specialised Cancer Action Team to drive up standards by visiting NHS hospitals to spread good practice
  • A national survey of the experiences of cancer patients
  • The National Institute for Clinical Excellence to appraise the effectiveness of specific breast cancer drugs for use in the NHS
  • The Commission for Health Improvement to work with the Audit Commission to review progress made by the NHS in implementing improvements to cancer services
  • New standards for treating individual types of cancer
  • An invitation to leading cancer research bodies to look at how better to plan and share research and expertise
  • An NHS on-line guide to cancer symptoms and advice with links to specialist organisations

Mr Blair also promised to consider any other proposals put forward during the meeting.

In addition, part of the extra £21bn the government pledged to the NHS over the next three years will be used to plan for an extra 400 cancer specialists and up to 15,000 extra nurses, as well as increased spending on cancer drugs.

Experts want investment

[ image: Professor Gordon McVie says major investment is needed]
Professor Gordon McVie says major investment is needed
Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said that, to achieve its aim, the government would have to more than double the number of cancer specialists in the UK.

He said: "The big surprise is the commitment to provide 400 new cancer specialists over the next five years and a big chunk of money for anti-cancer drugs.

"My only niggling doubt is the time scale. The public quite rightly wants action now. People are needlessly being denied best treatments and best practice."

Professor Karol Sikora: "The UK lags behind the rest of Europe"
Professor Karol Sikora, professor of oncology at Hammersmith Hospital and head of the World Health Organisation's cancer programme, said a one-off investment of £100m was needed.

More nurses, psycho-social care and better counselling were needed in addition to drugs, doctors and equipment.

It was announced in 1998 that cancer had overtaken heart disease as the main killer of Britons.

Cancer remains the second-biggest killer in western countries, after heart disease, accounting for 20 to 25% of all deaths.

Lung cancer is the most common tumour in Britain and the United States and is the hardest to treat.

The government has already pledged to give £60m to reducing deaths from breast, bowel and lung cancer.

The money will be used to improve quality of treatment and access to services and to reduce waiting times.

A further £150m will also be made available over the next three years from the National Lottery New Opportunities Fund.

Behind the rest of Europe

[ image: Professor Karol Sikora has called for a major investment in cancer services]
Professor Karol Sikora has called for a major investment in cancer services
Professor Sikora told the BBC that cancer treatment in the UK lagged badly behind much of the rest of Europe because it had often been treated as a "Cinderella service" over the last 30 years.

As a result there were not enough specialists, enough radiotherapy equipment and the amount spent on drugs in the UK was much lower than in many other countries - about a quarter of that in the US.

He said: "We have the technology, we have the expertise, you can get the best care in the world in Britain, but you can also get some rather poor quality care.

"If we had better organisation, more resources and above all better quality control so that we could achieve the best for everybody then we could get the sort of figures Mr Blair is talking about."

'Prevention better than cure'

But Clive Bates, director of Action on Smoking and Health, said money might be better spent on prevention rather than treatment.

Health Correspondent Richard Hannaford: "Mr Blair says the disease haunts every family"
He said he wrote to Mr Blair on Thursday morning about the issue.

"The trouble with treating people with hugely expensive drugs is that the money is much better spent on extremely cost-effective drugs like nicotine replacement therapy, which gets people off smoking and has enormous benefits in the long term," he said.

"I hope they don't take the expensive treatment route instead of the inexpensive and cost-effective route of prevention."

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