Covid Scotland: 'Deep concern' amid 40% drop in breast cancer screening during pandemic

A breast cancer charity has raised “deep concern” as new figures show continuing health inequalities and a 40 per cent drop in breast cancer screening during the pandemic.

Breast Cancer Now urged the Scottish Government to minimise the damage caused by the pandemic, and work to reduce pre-existing health inequalities.

Some 80,000 fewer people were screened for breast cancer in 2020/21 compared to the previous year, according to a new report from Public Health Scotland.

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A total of 718 fewer breast cancers were diagnosed during this period.

The data “lays bare the toll of the pandemic on breast cancer screening and diagnosis,” said Mia Rosenblatt, Associate Director of Evidence, Policy and Influencing at Breast Cancer Now.

NHS staff in Scotland have worked tirelessly to restart and continue delivering breast screening services in extremely challenging circumstances, and we’re encouraged to see levels of uptake for breast screening improving in Scotland in 2020/21 (75 per cent).

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“However, screening uptake in more deprived areas remains significantly lower, and this along with high levels of variation in screening performance across different regions, is cause for deep concern.”

Picture: Shutterstock

The Scottish Government paused several cancer screening programmes in March 2020, with the breast cancer programme re-starting again in August 2020.

In the three years prior to the pandemic an average of 259,040 women were invited annually to come forward for breast screening, but the number of invitations issued fell by more than 100,000 in 2020/21.

In the most deprived areas, just 61 per cent of women came forward for routing breast screening, compared to 80 per cent of those in the wealthiest areas.

Kate Seymour, head of advocacy for Macmillan Cancer Support in Scotland said that although the Scottish Government target of 70 per cent uptake in women aged 50 to 70 had been hit, “today’s statistics do still mean that more than a quarter of eligible people were not screened, and that people in more deprived parts of Scotland were far less likely to be screened than others”.

She added: “We know that early diagnosis and timely treatment provide the best possible outcomes for people with cancer, and effective screening is one of the best ways to make sure that happens.

“Now that screening services are back up and running it’s vital that screening capacity is maintained at optimum levels and that those who have received an invitation to be screened take up their appointment, so everyone with breast cancer can be diagnosed and access the life-saving treatment they need.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Uptake for routine breast screening continues to exceed the national target of 70 per cent in women aged 50-70.

“We will continue to tackle inequalities in all cancer screening programmes through a £2 million investment and on-going work to improve our breast screening programme.

“As a result of the pandemic, self-referrals for women over 71 have been paused since march 2020 so that capacity can be prioritised for women between 50 and 70 for whom screening is recommended. We are working towards the re-introduction of the screening programme for self-referrals by September this year.”


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