Bowel screening can help save lives by detecting bowel cancer at an early stage when it can often be successfully treated. This is important as there may be no warning signs that bowel cancer is developing.

Bowel screening in New Zealand involves eligible people aged 60 to 74 years being offered a screening test called a faecal immunochemical test (FIT), to check for tiny traces of blood in their bowel motions. The presence of blood can be an early warning sign that something is wrong with their bowel.

A positive test means that a certain amount of blood was found in the sample and the participant will be offered a diagnostic test, usually a colonoscopy, to determine why the blood is present.

Blood in a bowel motion doesn’t necessarily mean someone has bowel cancer. Small amounts of blood are most commonly caused by minor conditions such as haemorrhoids (piles), which can easily be treated.

What is a colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is the most common test used to check the bowel. A colonoscopy involves a specially trained doctor or health professional putting a thin tube into the anus to inspect the entire length of the large bowel. The tube has a very small camera on the end. If polyps are found they will usually be removed and sent to a laboratory for testing. Removing polyps is generally painless.

Colonoscopy will usually detect significant polyps and at least 95 out of 100 cancers.

Colonoscopy is considered a safe procedure with few risks and is generally straightforward for most people. However, as with most medical procedures, there is a risk of complications. There is a very small risk that the colonoscopy procedure itself, or removal of polyps, will cause serious bleeding or damage to the bowel and further treatment may be required.

Do other countries have bowel screening programmes?

Most countries in Europe have implemented an organised bowel screening programme. In 2015, 24 out of 28 European Union countries had either established or were preparing a bowel screening programme.

As at 2015, Australia, the United Kingdom, Finland, France and Slovenia had completed the roll-out of organised screening programmes. Roll-out was underway in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Malta and Spain. Pilot screening programmes were underway in Norway, Portugal and Sweden.

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