Fewer than half the minimum number of screenings for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer which the Health Ministers of the European Union (EU) agreed in December 2003 should be conducted every year are actually taking place, the European Commission reported on January 22.

The target set out in a Council Recommendation, which the Ministers adopted unanimously, was for around 125 million cancer screenings to take place each year. However, not only is the actual number carried out annually less than half that, but only 41% of the screenings which are carried out are performed in population-based programmes which provide the organisational framework for implementing the Recommendation’s comprehensive stipulations on quality assurance, says the Commission’s first implementation report on the initiative. Specifically, only 22 out of 27 EU member states are running or establishing population-based screening programmes, while just 15 are doing so for cervical cancer and 12 for colorectal cancer, it says.

In 2007, only 55 million EU citizens attended cancer screenings, the report also shows.

It acknowledges that the member states have made “much progress” in cancer screening, but also points out that the disease continues to represent one of the greatest burdens of ill-health within Europe, and is the second most-common cause of death. Breast, cervical and colorectal cancer accounts for 32% of cancer deaths in women in the EU, and 11% in men, it says.

“The Recommendation on cancer screening represents a shared EU wide commitment to taking practical steps to minimise that burden in practice, to the benefit of individual citizens and their families as well as to society as a whole. As this report shows, putting in place these screening measures is a challenging task, and more work is needed to fully implement the Recommendation,” says the Commission.

Added Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou: "In these times of financial uncertainty, we need to recognise, more than ever, the importance of planning for a healthy future. Investing in cancer screening programmes will pay long-term dividends, as prevention is the most efficient and cost-effective way to minimise the European burden of cancer."

The Commission added that, this year, it intends to step up the fight against cancer with the launch of a “partnership for action” against the disease. Through this initiative, it aims to put in place EU-wide commitments on concrete action to prevent and control cancer and thus contribute to reducing inequalities in tackling cancer. It will aim to support the member states by providing a framework for identifying and sharing information, capacity and expertise in cancer prevention and control, and by engaging relevant stakeholders across the EU “in a collective effort to reduce the burden of ill health that cancer represents,” it says.