Helicobacter pylori bacteria lurk in the stomachs of about two-thirds of the world's population.
Infection does not cause illness in most infected people, but it is a major risk factor for peptic ulcer disease. It's also responsible for most ulcers of the stomach and upper small intestine, the U.S. National Cancer Institute said.
Gastric cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the world. It killed about 738,000 people in 2008, according to the World Health Organization's global cancer database.
In Canada, stomach cancer kills about 1,800 people a year. The victims die so rapidly that no large survivor group lobbies for testing.
"I think it's a missed opportunity because the benefits in cancer, in Canada, aren't as dramatic as they might be for something like colon cancer, and maybe politically it's not so exciting. But still every opportunity to save lives is a good one," said Dr. Paul Moayyedi, a gastroenterologist at McMaster University in Hamilton.
It's cheap to test for H. pylori with a blood tests and the infection can be treated early with antibiotics, said Moyyedi, who advocates for screening based in part on its benefits for stomach bleeding and pain.
About one in 20 visits to a family doctor are for stomach problems, he noted.
"This would be the first screening program that could potentially pay for itself and yet no one in the world is yet doing it."