Breast screening backlog up to 50,000 due to pandemic

Kate Nicol-Williams
Source: 1News

After two years of lockdowns, the Ministry of Health says the backlog for regular breast screening has risen to 50,000 women compared to before the pandemic.

“We are very concerned and saddened by the reality of what we're dealing with,” Ministry of Health national screening unit clinical director Dr Jane O’Hallahan said.

During the Delta outbreak, Pasifika women, who along with Māori, have a greater risk of getting breast cancer and dying from it, have been the worst affected.

“They benefit more from attending breast cancer screening regularly… we know that Pacific women want to be screened, now is the time to return to screening,” O’Hallahan told 1News.

Screenings stopped at Alert Level 4 and capacity is reduced to 75 per cent at Alert Level 3.

After lockdowns in 2020, the backlog was 35,000 women.

"We were making good inroads into catching up those women, the second lockdown across Auckland has again had an effect on the coverage, we've now got 50,000 women to catch up on,” O’Hallahan said.

The latest data available from the Ministry of Health from August this year shows participation is at 64 per cent of the eligible women, the lowest rate in over a decade.

The national target for participation of women aged 45 to 69 is 70 per cent.

In August 2020, participation was 66 per cent and in August 2019 coverage was above the target at 71 per cent.

Dr O’Hallahan said delays to women getting their two-yearly call up may occur as a result of the situation, and the delays could last for months rather than weeks.

Appointment times have been extended and Māori and Pasifika women are being prioritised to try reduce the backlog and minimise the impact, she said.

“Some women have found it quite daunting going back into breast screening services because they see staff in PPE gear.

“With vaccinated nurses and staff we can do this safely and it’s really important,” she said.

The Breast Cancer Foundation's calculated lockdowns have left 133 Kiwi women unaware they have the disease.

“That makes us really devastated in terms of women… potentially delayed diagnoses impacting their treatment outcomes and the quality of life that they’ll have with breast cancer,” Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand chief executive Ah-Leen Rayner said.

The organisation’s launched a petition calling for increased Government funding to get through the backlog in six months.

The Ministry of Health’s O’Hallahan said getting women through the door and limited staff availability are the problems, not funding.

“If further funding is required, then we will be seeking that further funding,” she said.

"We're very determined to make sure that we catch up on making sure those women get back in the programme,” Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said.

Wellington resident Phillippa Plunkett considered skipping her mammogram in March but then told herself to get it done, something she’s grateful for as the screening found breast cancer.

“What if I hadn't gone to this mammogram appointment, I would not have known cause I didn’t feel anything, there was nothing there and the surgeon said if it had been later, it would’ve been a different outcome,” Plunkett said.

She’s encouraging her workmates and all eligible women to make their appointments.

O’Hallahan said if women can’t make their appointments, they’re advised to call ahead so someone else can take the appointment time.