Over the last two decades, in part through the Millennium Development Goals, and in part through other global efforts, the rates of infectious diseases are decreasing worldwide. At a global level, we have decreased the number of people dying from HIV, malaria and ailments that result in childhood mortality. This is not to say that our work is complete. Far from it, as stubborn issues like high rates of maternal mortality, inequity and lack of access continue to plague our efforts. While the picture in infectious diseases is not unblemished, it is indeed one of hope. The consequence of our success in infectious diseases is that chronic diseases, which we have ignored for so long, are now affecting global population and burdening health systems across the world, including Pakistan’s. In particular, cancer, which has been ignored for so long in developing countries, continues to cause deep concern among practitioners of global health. Surveys and estimates from the US National Cancer Institute and other organisations suggest that in the next 10 years, cancer will overtake a number of high-impact infectious diseases as the main cause for mortality, morbidity, financial impact and quality of life for those living in developing nations. Pakistan, unfortunately, is no exception to the burden of cancer and the impact in the future would be substantial unless we take serious action in awareness, diagnosis and broad access to treatment.
Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital inaugurated in Peshawar
In the backdrop of these dark skies of cancer on the horizon, Imran Khan’s efforts in creating the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital and Research Centre in Peshawar are highly commendable. I have often disagreed with the PTI’s policies, have not been a fan of the actions of its rank and file and have been disappointed by the positions of the party and its leadership on several fronts, but there can be no two opinions about this initiative that reflects the best of what our politicians should aspire for. The personal passion and resolve that culminated in creating the institution that opened its doors last week reflects a deep commitment distilling the best of our values. The Shaukat Khanum experiment in Lahore is a successful one, and whatever one thinks of Mr Khan, we cannot deny that it provides value to society in a manner few institutions have been able to do. An improved institution, incorporating the lessons of Lahore, is an outstanding step for a society where institution-building is no longer fashionable.
True health benefits: K-P now with free cancer treatment at its doorstep
The new centre in Peshawar is exciting on several important fronts. Security challenges in the last few years have meant that Peshawar and the northwest of Pakistan have become the unofficial no-go areas for many, including for investors and institution-builders. This would hopefully change that perception. Another important reason is providing access closer to home. We all do better when we find support from our loved ones. According to Shaukat Khanum estimates, approximately 25 to 30 per cent of all cancer patients at the Lahore campus come from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). This centre will not only be able to provide quality care to those in the western provinces, who would have gone to Lahore, but also to millions more who could not. This will be particularly important for women, who in many parts of K-P come to the clinic too late, largely because the culture does not permit them to travel great distances. But perhaps, the strongest reason for my excitement is that it has once again brought cancer to the folds of our national discourse. A country of nearly 200 million, with high levels of pollution, rampant smoking and dangerous practices of marrying in the same family for generations means that we are particularly vulnerable to cancer. A national discussion on the disease will hopefully engage the public, bring awareness, lead to early detection and increase chances of survival.
First phase of Shaukat Khanum to be complete on December 29
The new Shaukat Khanum Centre will hopefully outlive all of us, and will be here for many generations to come, long after people would have forgotten about dharnas, rigging allegations and mudslinging from all sides. And perhaps, that is what we should demand from our leaders: to change their focus from the next election to the next generation.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 5th, 2016.
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