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Early detection of breast cancer: Austria leads the way in Europe

(Vienna, 20st March 2012) From 2013, the national breast cancer early detection programme will begin in Austria. The programme is one in which experts from the Comprehensive Cancer Centre at the MedUni Vienna, and especially Thomas Helbich from the University Department of Radiodiagnostics as a member of the group of experts representing the Austrian Health Ministry and the City of Vienna, have played a key role. The unique thing about this national programme is that, in addition to mammography screening, an ultrasound examination is also performed for “dense breast” tissue findings, which is where Austria differs from other European countries.

“The whole of Europe is looking to us,” said Helbich at the EBCC 6 European Breast Cancer Conference, which got underway on Wednesday at the Austria Centre in Vienna.  “If we are successful with the additional ultrasound examination, it will become a global standard. Austria is leading the way in this regard.” The positive effect comes from the fact that the ultrasound examination means that more breast cancers can be detected earlier, especially in women whose breast tissue is extremely dense, thereby limiting the usefulness of mammography.

Strict quality criteria for mammography
The programme itself will deliver even more quality to mammography screenings and a nationwide invitation system in several languages in order to reach migrants too: all women in Austria aged between 45 and 69 who are registered with the programme are invited by letter every two years for screening mammography. Younger women from the age of 40 and older women up to the age of 75 can also take part in the programme if they wish. The EU has defined the standards for such examinations in minute detail in a 366-page document. Says Helbich: “This document describes exactly who, when and how we need to examine.”

Every mammogram is reported by two radiologists working independently of each other. All of the clinicians involved with the programme must also satisfy certain quality criteria and have completed appropriate training.

Saving the lives of 400 women a year
One in eight women in Austria will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, although mortality is relatively low at 20 per cent, thanks to the already high quality of the examinations that are carried out nationwide. However, says Helbich, currently only 40 to 50 per cent of the women whose gynaecologist or general practitioner has strongly advised to have a breast examination will actually go and have a mammography screening. The early detection programme is aimed at achieving a percentage of at least 70% for all women. Says Helbich: “If we achieve this, we can reduce mortality by around 30%.” Around 1,500 women die each year in Austria from breast cancer. The nationwide programme could save the lives of around 400 women. Says Helbich: “This is because the smaller the carcinoma is at the time it is diagnosed, the better the chances of survival.”