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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 March 2006, 14:50 GMT 15:50 UK
Bowel cancer screening delay row
Bowel screening
Bowel cancer kills thousands each year
The government has been accused of putting lives at risk by dragging its heels over the introduction of a national bowel screening programme.

In August last year the Department of Health pledged to roll out a programme for all 60 to 69-year-olds from April.

But Cancer Research UK said lack of preparation and funding meant there was bound to be a significant delay.

The Department of Health is adamant that the screening programme was going ahead as planned.

To claim the programme is going ahead as planned is a distortion of the truth
Professor Alex Markham

Bowel cancer kills over 16,000 people in the UK each year - more than all but one other type of the disease.

It is hoped that a screening programme could save about 1,000 lives a year by picking up the disease at an early stage, when it is most treatable.

In response to a parliamentary question about the programme, health minister Rosie Winterton said one site had been selected to begin the national roll out.

But Cancer Research UK said that four others promised by ministers had yet to be identified.

It said the site identified by Ms Winterton - in Rugby - had been up and running since September 2000, and that not a single new centre had been set up to get the programme under way.

The charity also said no home testing kits needed for the programme had been ordered.

In addition, the government had failed to confirm full funding for the programme.

Question of trust

Professor Alex Markham, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: "The government has reneged on its promise over this.

"To claim the programme is going ahead as planned is a distortion of the truth.

"The government has fudged the issue and now says it 'hopes' the centres should be established by March 2007.

"Last year it pledged that it would start the scheme next week. This is a gross betrayal of trust and lives will be lost as a result of this vacillating behaviour."

Professor Markham said the Rugby pilot had so far identified 1,200 people whose lives had been saved by early surgery.

"I think it is a disgrace that the rest of the country does not have access to this simple technology."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "There is absolutely no truth in the rumour that the national bowel cancer screening programme will be shelved.

"Funding has been agreed for the programme, which will be rolled out as planned from April 2006."

The intention of the scheme is to send home testing kits to everybody in the target age group every two years.

The patients would then send stool samples back to the screening centre.

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "It is seven months since the government promised that the long-awaited bowel cancer screening programme would finally begin on 1 April.

"It would be a serious failure on government's part if no action has been taken to ensure this programme begins on time."

One bowel cancer sufferer explains the benefits of screening

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