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Free screening Southern District Health Board bowel screening programme clinical leader Dr Jason Hill spoke to people at a meeting in Gore this week about the free screening programme for 60 to 74-year-olds. PHOTO: ASHLEIGH MARTIN

It is the most important health intervention in New Zealand in the past 20 years.

That is how Dr Jason Hill describes the free bowel screening programme available to those aged 60 to 74.

The Southern District Health Board bowel screening programme clinical leader talked through the details of the programme at an annual Grey Power Eastern Southland meeting in Gore this week.

The programme aimed to detect pre-cancerous polyps, or find bowel cancer early, when it could often be treated successfully.

If bowel cancer was diagnosed early, there was a 95% chance the cancer could be cured.

Dr Hill said the programme allowed people to take part in the comfort of their own home, because test kits were sent directly to eligible individuals.

He said the Southern DHB had the highest death rates of bowel cancer in the world.

The Southland DHB was the first DHB in the South Island to offer the programme.

“This is a game changer,” Dr Hill said.

The 35 people who attended the meeting asked many questions about how the programme worked and the parameters involved, such as the age bracket.

“You’ve got to start somewhere and I think it’s a good place to start,” he said.

There were 51,000 people eligible for the programme in Southland.

GPs sent letters to those who were eligible, so Dr Hill said it was crucial for people’s addresses to be up to date, to ensure they did not miss out on the free programme.

If the test came back negative, the participant would be invited to take part again in another two years, provided they were still eligible.

If the results were positive, the participant would be contacted by their GP within 10 days and a colonoscopy would be booked.

“You should make sure you do it, because it could just save your life.”

Mr Hill said the most effective way to reduce the risk of bowel cancer was to exercise at least three times a week.

Some people who were not eligible for the programme would be covered by other New Zealand bowel cancer programmes.

This included those who had a history of family members over two or three generations who had bowel cancer, a close family member under 55 diagnosed with bowel cancer, known or suspected genetic bowel cancer syndrome in their family, or extensive inflammatory bowel disease.

More information on the programme can be found at www.timetoscreen.nz/bowel-screening