A CANCER screening programme that has saved 50 lives is to be shut down.
The scheme, which screens for bowel cancer, is the only one of its kind in the country and will not be replaced until 2012, when a national programme is due to start.
In the meantime, the team running it. led by gastroenterologist Professor Colm O’Morain, will be disbanded in June.
As a result, thousands of people who could be screened in the two years between then and the rollout of the national programme some time in 2012 will now be missed.
The delay could mean more cases like the tragic death in 2007 of Susie Long, who died of a cancer that would have been diagnosed had she not been forced to wait seven months for a colonoscopy.
Fine Gael health spokesman Dr James Reilly said: ‘This is typical of the HSE’s insistence on slashing services before there is an equivalent to replace them.’
A spokesman for Tallaght Hospital, where the screening unit is currently based, said: ‘We don’t have the resources to fund it.’
Kathleen O’Meara, Irish Cancer Society head of advocacy and communications, said: ‘The Tallaght pilot project proved its worth in terms of lives saved. It proved the case for a national programme.
‘It would be better if Prof. O’Morain could continue because his work has been extremely useful.’
The Tallaght project was set up in 2008 by Prof. O’Morain, head of health sciences at Trinity, after two years of planning and research.
Based at Tallaght Hospital, the programme worked around the delivery of test kits sent to 10,000 50 to 74-year-olds living locally.
The people’s names were taken from GPs’ patient lists and participants were asked to send back two stool samples in containers provided.
Samples were tested for the presence of blood and those who showed positive were invited to a Saturday clinic for colonoscopy.
It was during those tests that 50 cancer cases were diagnosed. Many more pre-cancerous growths were also found and treated.
In 2008, Health Minister Mary Harney told the HSE to cut public waiting times for colonoscopies to four weeks. This followed national outcry in 2007 at the case of Susie Long, who revealed on radio that she had faced a seven-month wait.
In spring 2009, reports to the minister by the Health Information and Quality Authority and the National Cancer Screening Service recommended a national programme. The NCSS said such a scheme would be the ‘single most important public health intervention ever in the Irish health service’.
An average of 2040 new cases of colorectal – or bowel – cancer were diagnosed each year between 2002 and 2005, with an average of 925 deaths occurring in each year.
Colorectal cancer is the second most frequently diagnosed cancer in men and women in Ireland.
We have the highest colorectal cancer mortality rate for men in western Europe. By 2020, it is estimated that new cases diagnosed here will have increased by 79pc in men and 56pc in women.
Dr Reilly said: ‘Why close down a perfectly good service that is saving lives on the promise of another service that is years away?
‘Despite concerns about the initial age range proposed in the national programme, I welcomed it as an important development.
‘Only in the loony world of Mary Harney and the HSE would the announcement of one life-saving measure mean another gets shut down.’
Unlike Prof. O’Morain’s project, the national scheme will be restricted to those aged 60-69, the highest-risk group. No date has been set for expansion.
Prof. O’Morain said: ‘I’d like to see funding extended – any test should be repeated after two years. A national programme is long overdue and it is great that one is on the way.
‘But it would be better if the age range were wider as the point is to catch people as soon as possible.’