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Cancer Care in India Lacks Resource and Vision

New Delhi, Mon, 09 May 2016 NI Wire

Last year in August, I lost my father to cancer after a seven month long battle that includes consultation in specialist hospitals in Cuttack, Bhubaneswar, Delhi and Mumbai. Even though many forms of cancer disease are not completely curable (depending on the stages), with early diagnosis and proper care, doctors can certainly save lives of many and ensure the quality of life of serious cancer patients. However, in the absence of organized national cancer screening programmes, we are only fight a losing battle.

As per the latest Govt. data, cancer claims five lakh lives in India annually. Although the health ministry doesn't have any age-wise data, but it is reported that men usually suffer from throat and stomach cancer while women are more prone to breast, cervix and uterus cancer. Looking at the increasing number of cases, the government is now planning to set up 20 cancer research institutes and 50 Tertiary Cancer Centres.

The present proposal is a long term plan; hence on an urgent basis if there is anything can be done, it's probably better coordination between existing cancer research centres and hospitals. Considering the fact that most of the patients belong to rural areas with limited access to quality healthcare, the government also needs to setup diagnostic centres for early detection.

In my visit to different hospitals, the most recent being the All India Institute of Medical Sciences-AIIMS (Delhi, Bhubaneswar), Acharya Harihar Regional Cancer Centre (Cuttack) and Tata Memorial Centre (Mumbai), I must say that there is high probability of treating cancer if detected early: in Stage 1 or Stage 2.  These specialised hospitals offer subsidised medicines and care to many patients but somehow patients don't have the required resource and money to travel to these hospitals the earliest possible.

If I have to give just one example in terms of diagnosis out of my personal experience and from my numerous conversations with different patients and their family members, there are many required cancer screening tests such as PET CT Scan which are either not available in many government hospitals or very costly in private care. As per a latest study, out of 300 cancer centres in India about 40% are not adequately equipped with modern cancer equipments.

A National Sample Survey (NSS) data reveals that majority of the rural population don't get proper medical treatments because of the cost factor. For example: for blood cancer patients the most common drug is Glivec (generic name: Imatinib) which costs somewhere around Rs 8500 for 30 400mg tablets. The expense even goes further depending on the monthly doses.

There are different variants of Imatinib available but the fact is only few hospitals like Tata Memorial in Mumbai provides Imatinib and other common cancer drugs at a government subsidised rate. Today, looking at the treatment options, cancer is one of the most expensive diseases to treat. Many patients discontinue treatment in the middle owing to high cost even though they are in the first or second stage of cancer.

High cost of cancer drugs should be a grave concern for the government and there should be effort to bring the cost down. If we go by the latest data presented by senior oncologist Dr V Shantha of Adyar Cancer Institute, only 4 out of 10 cancer patients across India receive any form of available treatment. He further gave details that in 2015 the total number of cancer patients was projected to be 1.1 million but only 3.96 lakh (36%) received some form of treatment.

Above all ongoing discussions and statistics, the Government of India must find ways to develop specialised cancer hospitals with an integrated approach such as creating a universal data centre and a national level screen programme. At the same time, we can continue exploring the ways to grant compulsory licenses to produce and sell cheaper version of drugs that are available in other parts of the world or promote research to produce alternate drugs.

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