Cancer in Yemen: Increasing numbers of sufferers vs. scarce facilities [Archives:2007/1102/Health]

November 12 2007

Saddam Al-Ashmori
For Yemen Times

With only one cancer treatment center in Yemen, it is insufficient for the thousands who get cancer every year. Saddam Al-Ashmori visited the center to speak with officials and patients.

For cancer patient Sultan Al-Selwi, getting treatment at the Sana'a-based National Cancer Treatment Center is difficult because, as he explains, “We can hardly afford to pay for accommodation and other expenses, such as transportation and meals, particularly those of us who are penniless sufferers from remote areas with no relatives in Sana'a to provide lodging.”

He adds, “Despite the fact that we receive free medication at the center, its staff mistreats us most of the time, thereby forcing some patients to sleep outside the center.”

Al-Selwi further claims that cancer center staff do not fulfill their pledges to patients regarding care at the center, even if patients' condition is critical.

Cancer has become a global threat destroying the lives of vast numbers of people, particularly in Yemen, where treatment costs are high and equipment to fight the deadly disease is scarcely available.

In this poor nation, cancer is one of the hardest diseases to treat, while scores of sufferers increase over time. According to the most recent nationwide study of cancer patients, there are 22,000 new cancer cases annually.

Amran, Hajjah and Mahwit governorates had the highest number of cancer sufferers, as discovered during the fifth National Campaign to Support Cancer Patients held in Sana'a.

According to this campaign, more than 280 types of pesticides typically used by farmers on fruits, vegetables and qat are responsible for the deadly disease's terrible proliferation in just those three governorates.

The campaign also attributed much infection to the common consumption of various types of shamma, a white or brown powder many addicted individuals put in their mouths in a manner similar to qat.

Despite such disease's threat and its terrible proliferation, there's only one cancer treatment center in Yemen, based in Sana'a near Jumhury Hospital. Lack of fully-equipped cancer treatment centers is a primary reason for patients' continual sufferings. After infection with the disease, patients normally feel neither improvement nor any signs of recovery, only exacerbating conditions with each passing day.

Dr. Nadim Sa'eed Mohammed, director of the National Cancer Treatment Center, explains, “The center was built in September 2005 with a total capacity of 44 beds. However, the radiation unit alone treats 90 to 100 and sometimes 120 patients per day, in addition to the outside clinic, which diagnoses 40 to 50 patients daily.

“There's another unit for daily chemotherapy, where patients are treated without requiring admittance to a bed, while the center's laboratory handles 80 to 120 patients per day,” he adds. Because the Yemeni government finances all medical services at the center, it provides free care and treatment, so patients don't pay anything.

Asked why the lone center in Sana'a can't accommodate all of the nation's cases, the director responded, “Neither at the present time, nor in the future, will our center be able to accommodate all of Yemen's cancer sufferers. Just looking at the increasing numbers of cancer cases, it's illogical to say that one center is enough to treat those coming from all across the nation.

“For this reason, we're attempting to open four or five more centers in other governorates, such as the one being constructed in Hadramout. Other centers are planned in Ibb and Aden.

“Our map for constructing cancer treatment centers is designed in light of population density,” he explains further.

However, “For the time being, patients come from different parts of the republic, we diagnose them and then prescribe appropriate medication. After that, we recommend they return home but maintain regular visits to our center's branch in their home governorates. We have simple and modestly-equipped branches in Aden, Hadramout and Ibb.”

Regarding the availability of official statistics on the number of cancer patients, typical characteristics and symptoms of the disease and reasons for infections in Yemen, Mohammed notes, “In fact, there are no exact numbers regarding the disease because some patients come to the center for a specific time and then disappear or they travel abroad for treatment.

“Regardless, our center has recorded in its logbooks approximately 10,000 cancer cases in 2006 and 2007. Mastocarcinoma infections among women and throat, glandular and prostate cancers among men are the most widespread in Yemen, while their causes are smoking and using qat and shamma.”

Asked what measures the cancer center is taking to reduce patients' concerns, Mohammed replied, “We admit that patients experience much suffering regarding accommodation, transportation and food expenses. However, our mandate is to diagnose any patient coming to the center and then decide who needs to be admitted and who doesn't. We try to do our best in order to alleviate patients' sufferings.”

He pointed out that the cancer center has difficulty completing financial procedures at government ministries in order to obtain funds allocated for its operating expenses, coupled with a lack of sophisticated equipment.

Asma Mohammed Ali, whose leg is infected with a cancerous tumor, expresses, “We heartily thank all of those who contributed to establishing this center, which provides us free care. However, many of us experience overcrowding and logjams at the center, which reduces the level of required care for patients.

“We hope there will be other centers to help reduce congestion and lines of people awaiting treatment. Establishing other cancer treatment centers should be given precedence over the required level of care,” she concluded.

Foundation to support cancer patients

In response to the lack of well-equipped cancer treatment centers, the Foundation to Support Cancer Patients was established, launching nationwide campaigns in 2003 seeking to increase public awareness about the potential causes of various cancers. It also raises funds to establish cancer treatment centers, the first of which was the Sana'a-based one, which has been treating patients since early 2005.

Chairman Abdulwas'e Hayel Sa'eed Anam notes that the foundation has reached several achievements. Since its 2005 inauguration, the National Cancer Treatment Center thus far has admitted 2,110 patients, with an estimated 50 patients visiting daily for treatment and checkups. To date, its pharmacy has been provided YR 144 million worth of medication.

According to Anam, the foundation also has completed necessary arrangements to establish centers specialized in treating cancerous infections among children, mainly in Sana'a.

The Yemeni philanthropist further indicated that the foundation plans to open specialized units to diagnose cancerous tumors in Aden and Mukalla, in addition to recently inaugurated units in Hodeidah and Ibb.

In conclusion, Anam also stressed the necessity of increasing public awareness about how to curb the proliferation of cancer.