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Colorectal cancer diagnoses dropped over 40% during COVID-19 pandemic, new study shows

Press releases may be edited for formatting or style | October 04, 2021 CT X-Ray
(Vienna, October 4, 2021) The number of colorectal cancer (CRC) cases diagnosed fell dramatically by 40% in a year during the COVID-19 pandemic, new research presented today at UEG Week Virtual 2021 has shown1.

The research, which was conducted across multiple hospitals in Spain, compared data from the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic with data from the previous year. Of 1,385 cases of CRC diagnosed over the two-year period, almost two thirds (868 cases, 62.7%) were diagnosed in the pre-pandemic year from 24,860 colonoscopies. By contrast, only 517 cases (37.3%) were diagnosed during the pandemic, which also saw a 27% drop in the number of colonoscopies performed, to 17,337.

Those who were diagnosed with CRC between 15 March 2020 and 28 February 2021 were also older than in the pre-pandemic year, had more frequent symptoms, a greater number of complications and presented at a more advanced disease stage.

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Experts say the fall is a consequence of the suspension of screening programmes and the postponement of non-urgent colonoscopy investigations during the pandemic. Fewer cancers were identified by CRC screening in the pandemic period, with just 22 (4.3%) cases found in comparison to 182 (21%) in the pre-pandemic year. During the pandemic, more patients were diagnosed through symptoms (81.2% of diagnoses) compared with the pre-pandemic year (69%).

Dr María José Domper Arnal, from the Service of Digestive Diseases, University Clinic Hospital and the Aragón Health Research Institute (IIS Aragón) in Zaragoza, Spain, and lead author of the study, commented “These are very worrying findings indeed – cases of colorectal cancer undoubtedly went undiagnosed during the pandemic. Not only were there fewer diagnoses, but those diagnosed tended to be at a later stage and suffering from more serious symptoms.”

There was a significant increase in the number of patients being diagnosed with serious complications – a sign of late-stage disease – with an increase in symptoms such as bowel perforation, abscesses, bowel obstruction and bleeding requiring hospital admission. These cases made up 10.6% pre-pandemic and 14.7% during the pandemic. The number of stage IV cancers being diagnosed rose during the pandemic year, with stage IV cases making up 19.9% of cases, in comparison to 15.9% in the previous year.

“Although these figures are across a population of 1.3 million in Spain, it’s highly likely that the same drop in diagnoses would have happened elsewhere across the globe where screening was stopped and surgeries postponed, especially in countries that were heavily impacted by COVID-19”, explained Dr María José Domper Arnal.

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