Public health decisions get go ahead but could cancer strategy be left on the shelf?

09 April 2019 - by Erin Delaney

Given the anticipated 65 per cent increase in new cancer cases by the year 2035, the importance of having a strong, effective and well-resourced cancer strategy in place to implement targeted cancer prevention programmes, ensure early diagnosis and timely treatments for local patients, isn’t in dispute.

The Department of Health announcement in March that a Cancer Strategy for Northern Ireland is to be taken forward has been followed by a couple of critical disease-specific announcements just this week.

The roll out of the HPV vaccine to boys aged 12-13 as soon as September 2019 will protect 12,000 more boys each year in Northern Ireland against HPV-related diseases such as oral cancer and other diseases caused by HPV.

Since last summer, local cancer charities advocated extensively to have this gender-neutral vaccine extended to boys; bringing it in line with the rest of the UK and Ireland.

This development comes nine months after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended that boys as well as girls should receive this vaccine to ensure that both sexes are protected.

It comes hot on the heels of the news that the vaccine had nearly wiped out cases of cervical pre-cancer in young women in Scotland since an immunisation programme was introduced there 10 years ago. They found the vaccine had led to a 90 per cent cut in pre-cancerous cells. And they said the effects of the programme had “exceeded expectations”.

Moving from prevention to early diagnosis, the Department also announced this week the introduction of a more advanced bowel cancer screening test from 2020, which enjoys better rates of uptake and is more reliable.

So, a good news week for public health locally.

Undeniably, tackling cancer in Northern Ireland requires a multifaceted approach –from prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment through to aftercare and public awareness.

In announcing the long awaited cancer strategy in March, the Department stated it saw “merit in the model that was used by NHS England”.

We are expecting the establishment of local Independent Cancer Taskforce which will involve collaborative working with professional cancer services staff, patients, cancer charities, commissioners and other key stakeholders.

While there is no point in reinventing the wheel and we have a lot to learn from others’ successes and failures, the challenge for the Department is to reflect local needs.

Ensuring patient voices are heard in the development of this strategy, and perhaps more importantly, are reflected in the strategy itself, is what good government is all about after all.