Cancer prevention: Limited funding drives AJK into severe health crisis

Published: July 14, 2011

Experts believe raising awareness can curb the fatal disease to a large extent. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS

MUZAFFARABAD: 

Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) never truly recovered from the earthquake that rocked it six years ago. The population that remains is still reeling from the aftershocks of the tragedy.

Besides causing nearly 47,000 deaths, the earthquake injured more than 33,000 and displaced 116,000 in four of the eight districts of AJK. It also damaged a large number of healthcare facilities. Today these are being rebuilt with help from donors.

Despite some major hospitals being reconstructed, staffing continues to add to the frustration of not only the locals, but also the AJK government. It has been difficult for the government of AJK to make these hospitals operational owing to a lack of funds. With general medical treatment barely within public reach, treatment for more acute medical conditions such as cancer or kidney disease is a long shot.

“Our health sector is in the worst possible condition,” says AJK President Raja Zulqarnain Khan. “We have medical practitioners here, but they are extremely limited in number. Very few doctors want to come out here … perhaps due to lack of infrastructure and facilities,” he said, adding: “At present, we have just one cancer specialist. We need all the help we can get.”

He was addressing the First National Tumour Board meeting held in Muzaffarabad on July 8-9. The meeting was organised by the Pakistan Society of Clinical Oncology (PSCO) and pharmaceutical company AJM Pharma to address various cancer cases and their treatment.

Speaking at the inaugural address President PSCO Prof Shaharyar said, “The objective of this meeting is to bring the expertise of key opinion leaders to the doorstep of the oncology treatment centre in AJK, to build local capacity through discussing complicated cases presented by oncologists from all over the country and to engage local stakeholders in spreading awareness on preventive measures and early diagnostic strategies.”

The meeting was attended by oncology experts from all over Pakistan.

“Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Pakistan. Even though head and neck cancer tops the list for the most prevalent types in the country, most patients do not seek help till they’ve reached a critical stage, and by then, it’s usually too late,” remarked Prof Naeem Naqi of the Combined Military Hospital (CMH), Lahore.

“In a country like ours, preventive measures such as putting a ban on tobacco [smoking and chewing], stopping cancer causing industrial pollutants as well as creating mass awareness and early detection strategies should be a priority,” said Dr Arif Jamshaid, consultant oncologist SKMCH, Lahore.

In Pakistan, less than 55 per cent of the population has access to basic healthcare. Add to that environmental pollutants, late diagnosis, lack of awareness about causative factors in diet, professional hazardous exposure and absolute paucity of preventive measures, and you have a country reaching an alarming level in terms of the number of cancer patients.

In the hope of significantly reducing the number of deaths among women as a result of breast cancer, AJM Pharma has teamed up with leading experts in oncology, surgery and medicine from all over the country to launch an initiative titled: Hawwa ki Beti Ka Tum Pay Karz Hai [You owe it to the daughter of Eve]. The objective of the programme is to create awareness among young girls on the importance of self-examination and early detection of tumours.

Prof Ahmed Ijaz Masood of Nishtar Medical College (NMC), Multan said, “Raising awareness is the only way to curb the deadly disease. Cancer in most situations can be cured, if only people were to detect it soon enough.”

Heeding the AJK president’s call for help, the meeting
concluded with several members of the tumour board volunteering their services to help out.

Seven symptoms of possible cancer: PSCO

• A sore that does not heal

•  A lump in the breast or other parts of the body

•  Chronic indigestion or difficulty in swallowing

• A change in urine habits

•  Unusual bleeding or discharge with stool or urine

•  Obvious changes in a wart or mole

• Persistent coughing or hoarseness of voice

According to PSCO, the presence of any of these signs does not necessarily mean a person has cancer, but cancer societies around the world urge that these symptoms should not go ignored and for health practitioners to be consulted at the first sign of any of the symptoms mentioned above.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2011.

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