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Media Release

New data shows life saving cancer screening participation at risk during COVID

October 8, 2020

Cancer Council has issued a call for Australians to act now to get up to date with their bowel, breast and cervical screening following data released today that shows fewer Australians are screening in 2020 than previous years.

The report, Cancer Screening and COVID-19 in Australia, released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, has shown that between January to June 2020 there was 144,982 fewer mammograms and 443,935 fewer cervical screening tests have been completed, and from January to July 144,379 fewer bowel screening tests returned, compared with previous years.*

Minister for Health, Greg Hunt said, “The Australian Government anticipated a drop in screening in the first half of 2020, and invested in a $2.2 million Cancer Screening Saves Lives campaign, delivered by Cancer Council, to combat this drop and encourage more people to screen. It is simple: cancer screening saves lives. I urge all eligible Australians to make sure they get screened”.

Megan Varlow, Acting CEO of Cancer Council Australia, explained some of the possible reasons for the decline.

COVID-19 impacted participation in cancer screening in different ways. BreastScreen Australia services temporarily paused in the first stages of the COVID-19 lockdown which saw participation fall significantly, particularly during April. As services have now resumed, we are encouraging anyone who has received an invitation from BreastScreen to make sure they make a booking with their local BreastScreen service.

“The national cervical screening program also saw a decline and while this was expected due to the program transitioning from the two-yearly Pap smear to the five-yearly cervical screening test, the reductions during the COVID-19 lockdown are more than we would have expected. This is likely a result of fewer people attending face-to-face appointments with their GP, and therefore fewer cervical screening tests being completed.

“This decline is very concerning as it means there is a sizable portion of women who are now overdue for screening.”

Ms Varlow explained that we have had fewer bowel screening kits returned so far in 2020 than during the same January – July period last year.

“From January to July 2020, the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program has sent over 2.1 million kits to Australians, yet fewer than 700,000 have been returned.

“Currently four in 10 Australians complete their free test after they receive it in the mail. With many of us spending more time than ever at home, if you’ve received a free bowel test, now is the time to complete it.

“We know that COVID-19 has disrupted our lives and some of us may have neglected our regular health checks.

“We are urging Australians to stop putting off any health checks. If you are due or have been invited to participate in the breast, bowel or cervical screening programs, get it done and tick cancer screening off your to do list.”

Screening aims to detect cancers early, either by detecting any early precancerous signs (to stop the cancer developing in the first place) or by detecting cancers when they are small (and treatment options and survival prospects are better). This leads to improved survival for people who participate in screening.

The Screening Saves Lives Campaign - including radio, digital and social media advertising will run throughout Spring. Tailored materials for GPs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, and for Greek, Arabic, Mandarin and Vietnamese speaking communities are also part of the campaign. 

* bowel and cervical data compared 2020 with 2019, breast data compared 2020 with  2018.

For media enquiries please contact Tegan Brown on 02 8063 4143 (diverts to mobile) or email media@cancer.org.au     

AIHW report Cancer screening and COVID-19 in Australia (Part 1)

Total participation in BreastScreen January – June 2020

State20182020
NSW153,371104,734
Vic116,45076,080
WA52,31140,367
QLD100,91977,424
SA41,40325,935
Tas14,51510,239
ACT7,5877,288
NT2,4691,976
Australia489,025344,043

Total participation in National Cervical Screening Program January – June 2020

State20192020
NSW242,760113,238
Vic216,07991,607
WA8501938,756
QLD159,84872,486
SA5845824,343
Tas16,5777,179
ACT14,4586,816
NT70624,256
Australia807,553363,618

* States and territories do not sum to Australia due to screening tests for which the state or territory is unknown

* These data are sourced from a live database, which is updated over time, with later data supply likely to have a greater level of completeness. This means that the data in this report are considered preliminary and may differ from data are sourced at a different time

Total participation in National Bowel Cancer Screening Program January – July 2020

State2019 invitations2019 kits returned2020 invitations2020 kits returned
NSW600,228239,501736,462234,240
Vic465,834226,234566,516191,790
WA20389190,292199,57556,366
QLD399,695155,791404,012109,541
SA140,27472,543152,02256,460
Tas46,44223,38054,40418902
ACT27,49712,40335,89012,202
NT15,7795,35929,0611,554
Australia1,899,641825,5322,177,945681,152

* States and territories do not sum to Australia due to screening tests for which the state or territory is unknown

* These data are sourced from a live database, which is updated over time, with later data supply likely to have a greater level of completeness. This means that the data in this report are considered preliminary and may differ from data are sourced at a different time.

* different age groups were eligible in 2019 and 2020, the numbers are not directly comparable.

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Media Enquiries
Please contact Tegan Brown in the Cancer Council Australia media team on (02) 8063 4109 or email media@cancer.org.au
Our media hotline diverts to mobile outside of business hours