There has been a “worrying” reduction in the number of people who have taken part in bowel cancer screening, a new study suggests.
Experts found that between 2010 and 2015, the number of people aged 60 to 64 who took part in their first bowel screening reduced from 53% to 49%.
The finding prompted health officials to warn that people are “putting their lives unnecessarily at risk”.
In 2015, less than half (51%) of people invited to bowel screening for the first time did not take part, according to figures from published in the European Journal of Cancer.
At present, people aged 60 to 74 are sent a free bowel cancer screening kit in the post once every two years.
The current screening kit requires small stool samples to be taken on three separate days and posted back to the bowel screening unit in specially sealed envelopes.
The new research found that women were more likely to take up their screening invite compared to men – with 56% of women taking part compared to 47% of men.
Meanwhile, people from more deprived areas were also less likely to participate in the scheme.
Just 41% of people from poorer places took part compared to 57% from more affluent areas.
Researchers from University College London (UCL) examined the anonymous data from 4.4 million men and women aged between 60 and 64 who were sent a home test kit for the first time as part of the English Bowel Cancer Screening Programme between 2010 and 2015.
Cancer Research UK warned that for those who choose to take part in screening the risk of dying from bowel cancer is 25% lower than for those who do not.
Lead researcher Dr Christian von Wagner, from UCL, said: “The fact fewer and fewer people are returning their kits and that inequalities in the system are widening, is very worrying.
“There is an urgent need to revolutionise bowel cancer screening because the earlier cancer is spotted, the more lives can be saved.
“Research has shown the introduction of a new test called the Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) would encourage more people to take part, with a 7% increase in uptake. The sooner this can be introduced, the more lives will be saved.”
The FIT test is due to be introduced in England this autumn, it only requires one sample instead of three and is said to be better at detecting potential signs of disease.
And the age at which bowel cancer screening starts in England is set to be lowered from 60 to 50.
Commenting on the analysis, Professor Anne Mackie, Public Health England’s director of screening said: “People are putting their lives unnecessarily at risk by missing out on a bowel screen test, which significantly reduces your risk of dying from bowel cancer.
“We want more people to get tested as thousands more lives could be saved.
“Test kits are sent out to everyone over 60, together with a leaflet about what’s involved and why it’s important that people have a choice to decide if it’s right for them.
“Also the new FIT kit will be easier to use, so will hopefully boost numbers being tested.”
Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: “When bowel cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, as through screening, more than nine in 10 people survive but when it is detected in the late stages, survival falls to less than one in 10.
“Every year around 28,500 people aged 60 and over are diagnosed with bowel cancer in England. Improved screening will undoubtedly reduce deaths from a cancer that affects so many lives.”
Deborah Alsina, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, added: “These findings are deeply concerning as we know that screening is the best way to be diagnosed early, when it is more treatable and curable.
“Quite simply, bowel cancer screening saves lives.
“The introduction of the new Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) will be a game changer for bowel cancer, not only has it been proven to increase uptake so reversing this worrying trend, but it also has the potential to detect more early stage cancers or to prevent it all together.
“However, the programme is already severely delayed due to the lack of colonoscopy and pathology capacity and we urge the Government to finally address this so the programme can be fully rolled out successfully and sustainably.”