Health Minister Jonathan Coleman says the start of the bowel screening programme is a major milestone for the New Zealand health system, and will ultimately save lives.
"This week the first letters inviting people to take part in the screening programme are being sent to eligible residents in the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa DHBs," says Dr Coleman.
"This is the first step in the phased implementation of the free National Bowel Screening Programme throughout New Zealand over the next three years.
"We know that this programme will help to detect bowel cancer at an early stage, when treatment is easier and the outcomes more successful.
"Over the next two years, approximately 30,000 residents in the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa DHB areas will be invited to do the bowel screening test.
"Every year around 3,000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with bowel cancer and more than 1,200 die from it. Once screening is available nationwide it's expected that up to 700 cancers will be detected annually."
In line with international best practice, the screening programme is being phased in progressively.
Once it is fully rolled out, more than 700,000 people aged between 60 and 74 will be invited for free screening every two years.
"The introduction of the programme follows on from the successful pilot that has been run by Waitemata DHB since late 2011. Waitemata will continue screening through the pilot until the end of this year and transition to the national programme in January 2018," says Dr Coleman.
"Southern and Counties Manukau DHBs will be the next to join the rollout and the nationwide rollout will be completed by 2020.
"The latest data shows 4,437 patients received a colonoscopy in May 2017 - this is the largest number performed in a single month since data collection began in July 2012. This is a 71 per cent increase compared to 2,594 colonoscopies carried out in May 2013.
"This has helped to reduce the number of patients waiting longer than recommended for a colonoscopy, which in May 2017 was down 71 per cent from May 2013, meaning 6,496 fewer people are waiting longer than recommended.
"Meeting the demand for colonoscopies is a key part of preparing for the roll-out of the national bowel screening programme."
The Government has invested $77.8 million into the screening programme's progressive roll-out to date, with a further $19 million invested into delivering more colonoscopies quicker.
Further information on the National Bowel Screening Programme is available at www.bowelscreening.health.govt.nz