ALARMING new evidence has been revealed of the impact the North-South divide has on health in the region.

Cancer survival rates in the North-East are among the worst in the country, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics.

Patients in Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Sunderland and North Tyneside are facing early deaths from the disease.

Only 65 per cent of breast cancer sufferers in Newcastle survive five years after diagnosis - compared to 81.1 per cent in Oxford and a 75.9 per cent national average.

In Middlesbrough, 24.9 per cent of colon cancer sufferers survive the first five years, compared to 49 per cent in Cambridge and a 43.4 per cent national average.

Meanwhile, lung cancer patients in Sunderland have the worst survival rate in the country with only 2.6 per cent seeing out the next five years, less than half the national average.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of Cancer Research UK, predicted patients moving home to get better cancer care.

He said: "We have postcode cancer mortality rates in the United Kingdom.

"When school performance tables are published, you get people moving into the catchment area of a good school.

"I would not be surprised if people start moving to the catchment area of a well-performing health authority."

The figures for December 2000 come only days after an international study of cancer patients alive after five years showed the UK is near the bottom in a table of European nations.

In England, just over a third of patients survive, compared with 45 per cent in France and 52 per cent in Sweden.

The region's doctors blame poor funding and a reluctance to seek medical help for the North-East's latest poor showing in national league tables.

Middlesbrough GP John Canning, who sits on the national committee of the British Medical Association, said the figures reveal a worrying picture.

He said: "This just shows what we have known for some time - that the North-East is lagging behind the rest of the UK in health provision.

"We have less doctors and nurses per head of population than most regions and, due to the Barnett Formula which earmarks much more money for Scotland, the region is under-funded.

"Scotland's appalling health record is well documented, but they get significantly more money than us."

The Northern Echo is campaigning to scrap the controversial 1970s settlement which underwrites higher spending north of the border.

Dr Canning added: "People in the North-East also have a relatively poor attitude to their own health. Many have other socio-economic issues that seem to take priority.

"Patients are dying sooner after diagnoses because they are so reluctant to go to their GP."

The figures will come as no surprise to many experts after so-called cancer tsar Professor Mike Richards said two years ago that the provision of cancer professionals in the deprived North is well behind the prosperous South.

He also blamed poverty and a reluctance to seek help.

Professor Paul Johnstone, director of public health at County Durham and Tees Valley Health Authority, admitted colon cancer survival rates on Teesside have been a cause of concern for some time.

He added: "It is probably going to take a generation before the figures come down. We are trying to get a greater recognition of the early signs of cancer.

"It is recognised that the people of Teesside generally have poor diets and that it also reflected in the survival rates."

No one from the health trusts representing Newcastle, North Tyneside, Sunderland or Middlesbrough were available for comment yesterday.