A new, more accurate screening test for bowel cancer is on hold in Northern Ireland because there is no Stormont health minister.
Bowel cancer is second only to lung cancer as the leading cause of death from the disease in both the UK and in Europe.
Up to 16,000 people in the UK die from the disease every year.
The new test is being rolled out in England, Scotland and Wales, but Northern Ireland is lagging behind.
The Department of Health said the UK recommendation for the new test was endorsed by the Northern Ireland Screening Committee in July.
Now it is up to a Northern Ireland health minister to consider it – when that minister is appointed.
“In the interim, the department and Public Health Agency will be taking forward the necessary preparatory work,” a spokesperson for the Department of Health said.
Asha Kaur, policy and campaigns manager, Bowel Cancer UK, said the new test was much more accurate and also easier to complete than the current screening test.
“This means we could potentially save more lives from bowel cancer,” she said.
The Faecal Immunochemical Test – FIT – detects tiny amounts of blood in the stool just like the current screening test.
“Where the FIT test differs is in the way that it measures the level of blood whereas the current test indicates the presence of blood so FIT is far more accurate,” she said.
“A key difference with FIT is that it requires only one sample rather than the three needed previously.
“The pilot found that FIT picks up twice as many cancers and four times as many advanced adenomas as the current screening test,” she said.
“This is important because the more cancers we can pick up early, the more lives we can save. We know that cancers picked up through the screening are more likely to be early stage cancers. The earlier bowel cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat and the greater chance of survival.”
Ms Kaur said England, Scotland and Wales have committed to replace the screening test with FIT. Scotland will introduce it first in November 2017, followed by England in 2018 and then Wales.
But Northern Ireland is waiting for a new health minister to approve it.
On average 59% of people living in Northern Ireland who are sent the bowel cancer screening test for free in the post actually complete it, but this drops to 57% in Scotland, 56% in England and 54% in Wales. Bowel Cancer UK believes this should be increased with the new easier FIT test.
“The National Screening Committee recommended the introduction of the FIT test in 2016,” said Ms Kaur.
“However, because Stormont is not currently running and ministerial approval is needed, I understand that is not forthcoming.”
A spokesperson for the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland said current bowel cancer screening is not a test for cancer but, rather looks for blood and, as cancers often bleed, this means further investigations are recommended.
She said studies have shown that current screening reduces mortality rates from bowel cancer by 15%.
“A combination of availing of the screening programme when invited and being alert to signs and symptoms of bowel cancer can help increase the chances of the illness being caught at an earlier stage,” she said.