Government stalling on breast screening costs the life of one woman every month
One woman a month will needlessly lose her life to breast cancer thanks to the Government’s latest refusal to uphold its promise of lifting the breast screening age to 74, says Breast Cancer Foundation NZ.
The Government has just responded to a select committee’s investigation into breast screening, saying it is unable to immediately roll out free mammograms to women aged 70-74, despite committing to do this in 2017. Parliament’s Petitions Committee recommended in March that the Government should consider extending the screening age from 69 to 74, after receiving a petition by Breast Cancer Foundation NZ signed by 10,600 people.
Ah-Leen Rayner, chief executive of Breast Cancer Foundation NZ, is condemning the Government for officially backtracking on its promise six years ago: “Today’s report is just more of the same excuses for inaction that we’ve seen again and again. But the Government’s claims simply don’t stack up:
- BreastScreen Aotearoa’s capacity issues were already identified in a 2011 review, so why is this still a problem more than a decade on?
- We reject concerns about the age extension being inequitable for Māori, when wāhine Māori in their 70s have a much higher incidence of breast cancer than Pākehā women.
- The Government’s projected cost of $30m for the first two years seems excessive when we estimate it would only require $10m per year.
- Claims about the limitations of BreastScreen Aotearoa’s ICT system are disproportionate when a phased roll out of the age extension would only require 160 extra mammograms per week nationally in the first year for women already enrolled in the system.
- The Government’s reference to insufficient evidence for the benefits of the age extension contradicts Te Whatu Ora’s acceptance of this evidence.
“It’s inexcusable the age extension will be kept ‘under review’ when the delay is costing the life of one woman every month. Getting more eligible women into screening – especially Māori and Pacific women – and raising the screening age are both necessary and could be achieved now if the Government properly invested in breast screening,” adds Rayner.
In October 2021, Breast Cancer Foundation NZ launched a petition calling on the Government to restore and extend breast screening in the wake of Covid-19 disruptions. The petition was signed by 10,600 New Zealanders, and the Petitions Committee responded in March 2023, recommending the Government increase the screening age from 69 to 74. The cross-party committee also expressed concern that more steps had not been taken to increase the breast screening age from 69 to 74, when a former Health Committee recommended this change six years ago.
Breast Cancer Foundation NZ first began campaigning for the screening age to be lifted in 2016. A woman’s risk of breast cancer is higher at 70 than it is at 50 and research shows mammograms are still life-saving for women in their 70s. The current age limit of 69 is outdated and leaves New Zealand lagging behind Australia, the United States and Canada.
Labour agreed in its 2017 coalition agreement to progressively increase the age for free breast screening to 74 and this was included in the Ministry of Health’s 2019 Cancer Action Plan.