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New bowel cancer screening test delayed in Northern Ireland due to no health minister

A newly developed screening test for bowel cancer has been put on hold in Northern Ireland because there is no Stormont health minister.

With over 1,000 people in Northern Ireland a year being diagnosed, bowel cancer comes second to lung cancer as the leading cause of death from the disease.

Figures show up to 16,000 people in the UK die from cancer every year.

The new bowel screening programme has already been introduced in England, Scotland and Wales, but screening in Northern Ireland has been delayed - as there is no health minister currently appointed.

The Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) detects tiny amounts of blood in the stool just like the current screening test.

Asha Kaur, policy and campaigns manager for Bowel Cancer UK, told the BBC that the new test is much more accurate and also easier to complete than the current screening test.

"This means we could potentially save more lives from bowel cancer," she said.

"Where the Faecal Immunochemical Test differs is in the way that it measures the level of blood whereas the current test indicates the presence of blood so FIT is far more accurate."

"A key difference with FIT is that it requires only one sample rather than the three needed previously.

"The pilot found that FIT picks up twice as many cancers and four times as many adenomas as the current screening test.

"This is important because the more cancers we can pick up early, the more lives we can save. We know that cancers picked up through the screening are more likely to be early stage cancers. The earlier bowel cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat and the greater chance of survival."

Ms Kaur added: "However, because Stormont is not currently running and ministerial approval is needed, I understand that is not forthcoming."

A spokesperson for the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland said:  "Current bowel cancer screening is not a test for cancer but, rather looks for blood and, as cancers often bleed, this means further investigations are recommended."

Current screening reduces mortality rates from bowel cancer by 15%, she said.

"A combination of availing of the screening programme when invited and being alert to signs and symptoms of bowel cancer can help increase the chances of the illness being caught at an earlier stage," she said.

North Belfast DUP MLA Paula Bradley said that the inability to introduce new bowel cancer screening tests is the latest example of how a refusal to establish the Executive is impacting upon the people of Northern Ireland.

"The inability to introduce a new bowel cancer screening test because there is no Health Minister in place is the latest direct impact on people of Sinn Fein’s refusal to restore devolution. The development comes as waiting times for investigations, treatments and surgery continue to spiral further out of control," she said.

"There was a great deal of coverage over the last few weeks that there is no Infrastructure Minister in place to introduce regulations that would allow e-bike users to use their bike on the roads.  That is hugely frustrating for e-bike users, but this is truly an issue of life and death.

"Sinn Fein must justify why a test to improve bowel cancer survival rates is less important to them than their narrow political agenda which is preventing the formation of an Executive. Republicans should finally face some belated questioning about the real impact of their politicking."

SDLP Health Spokesperson, Mark H Durkan MLA branded the the delay for the new bowel cancer screening test a "disgrace", saying: "The collapse of the institutions has had a clear and negative impact on our health service.

"At a time when we should be implementing a transformation plan, the service has been starved of strategic and political direction. Now some of our most vulnerable patients, those with suspected cancer, will have to wait for a new, more accurate, screening test."

Durkan stressed: "Early diagnosis and treatment is critical to beating bowel cancer. Delaying the implementation of advanced screening techniques will lead to people dying earlier, there are no two ways about it.

"It is a disgrace that the vacuum at Stormont, caused by a failure of politics, is putting lives at risk. People will not understand that. We should not stand for it. Action is urgently needed to restore power-sharing and support our health service."

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