When both sides of politics committed to phase in a national bowel cancer screening program in 2004, it showed that the Howard government, with its high-profile health minister Tony Abbott, and the Latham opposition, with its rising-star shadow health minister Julia Gillard, understood the extraordinary public health benefits.
So how would we have felt if we’d known that, six years and three elections later, neither a government run by Gillard nor an opposition headed by Abbott would have committed to a plan for implementing the program they pledged to introduce so long ago?
Perhaps we wouldn’t have believed it. As reported, it’s hard to imagine any other public health program with as much potential to reduce mortality and morbidity being subject to so much delay and uncertainty.
Yet here we are, after five years of intermittent, limited screening, with no published budget funding for the continuation of the program beyond June 2011 and no plan.
The program requires annual funding of more than $100 million, but with bowel cancer treatment costs set to exceed $1 billion per annum in 2011 — largely because of high-cost drugs for treating thousands of late-stage cancers that could literally be nipped in the bud if detected through screening — surely this is a blue-chip investment? Then there’s the incalculable gain of 30 deaths prevented each week.
On our back-of-the-envelope but nonetheless conservative estimate, a fully implemented bowel cancer screening program would cost Australia’s 11 million taxpayers less than $12 each per year. That equates to 23c each week from each taxpayer to prevent 30 Australian deaths over the same period — or less than one cent per week to save someone’s father, mother, sibling or friend from a premature bowel cancer death.
In a polity reportedly dominated by focus groups and 24-hour news grabs, taxpayers should be asked how they would feel about this use of their money. Hard to imagine anyone resenting the investment.
This Thursday, our employer, the Cancer Council, is hosting a breakfast event in federal Parliament House to promote the benefits of bowel cancer screening to your elected representatives — in the hope of bipartisan support for a program implementation plan. With a reasonable turn-out expected, we look forward to a robust discussion.
But will the major parties commit to a plan for reducing the death and disease caused by one of the nation’s most anonymous killers?
And if not, why not?
*Paul Grogan is director of advocacy for Cancer Council Australia, and Terry Slevin is education and research director at Cancer Council Western Australia