Bowel cancer screening programme needs to be extended to more Kiwis - Bowel Cancer NZ

More people under the age of 60 need to be eligible for the Government's bowel cancer screening programme, says Bowel Cancer NZ.

The organisation is calling for Māori aged 50-59 to be immediately included in the programme, and the wider population in that age group by 2025.

Dr Sarah Derrett, spokesperson for Bowel Cancer NZ and a professor at Otago University, says dozens of people are dying every year because they missing out on being diagnosed early enough.

'We're losing about 120 people in that 50-59 age group every year - it's a huge amount of people," Dr Derrett told The AM Show on Wednesday.

Currently screening is only available for those aged 60-74.

She said 360 people in the 50-59 age group are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year.

If the disease is caught early enough it is curable, but the longer it is left undiagnosed the more danger those suffering it face, she says. 

"It's treatable and beatable. It's one of the most treatable cancers if it's caught in time."

Although eventually all Kiwis of that age should be screened, Māori - who are most at-risk  - need to be eligible for screening immediately, says Dr Derrett.

"We should start screening Māori at age 50 now.  Because while 12 percent of all of us [New Zealanders] are diagnosed with bowel cancer in that 50-59 year age group - for Māori that's over 20 percent."

Dr Derrett pinpointed a lack of qualified workers as part of the problem.

"The decision was made to start at 60 because of the concerns we don't have enough workforce in New Zealand. So what Bowel Cancer New Zealand wants action on is getting some workforce," she said.

"We've been sitting on our hands for over a decade not doing the workforce development that we know we need.

"It's not good enough."

Dr Derrett says an investment in growing the workforce and more screening would work out more cost-efficient for the country in the long-term.

"If we diagnose it early people get treated, then it's saving the entire health system money."

Opposition leader Simon Bridges told The AM Show that he agrees in principle that more needs to be done on the issue, particularly in regards to Māori health, though wouldn't say if his party would change the programme if elected in this year's general election.

"I don't want to commit outright, because I think we should be looking at the details, but broadly speaking, yeah, I think we need to do more and that is the direction we should be travelling in."