Shortage of cancer treatments puts thousands at risk

Hospitals specialising in cancer treatment have urged the Iraq authorities to replenish supplies because they say a shortage of essential medicines is putting the lives of thousands of patients at risk.

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“Patients are dying from cancer because of a lack of medicines in public hospitals. Private pharmacies are selling the products but at very high prices, which cannot be afforded by poor families,” said Ibraheem Muhammad, a senior official at the Cancer Research Centre at the Ministry of Health.

“Indispensable drugs like methotrexate, largely used in breast [cancer], bone [cancer] and in certain cases of leukaemia; cyclophosphamide used in lung and breast cancer and lymphomas, as well as vindesine, used in all those cases, are seriously short in all hospitals in Iraq,” Muhammad added. “To make the situation worse for patients, some machines used for radiotherapy are broken, waiting for repairs.”

According to Muhammad, some wealthier patients are going abroad for treatment when they can get the visas but poor families are desperate as they cannot afford to be treated privately.

“Based on information received at our centre, at least 60 people have died from cancer in Iraq due to a lack of medicines in the past two months. Cancer in some patients can develop very fast if treatment isn’t available and if the situation continues, more cases are going to be reported in the coming weeks,” he noted.

Black-market dealers

Fua’ad Abdel-Razaq, an oncologist at Cancer Studies Hospital, in the capital, Baghdad, said black-market dealers can be found at hospital doors selling drugs for cancer treatment.

“In addition to the high prices, many of the drugs [sold illicitly] have already expired and desperate families buy them in an attempt to save the lives of their loved ones but thereby put the patients at high risk,” Abdel-Razaq added.

''Based on information received at our centre, at least 60 people have died from cancer in Iraq due to a lack of medicines in the past two months.''

The oncologist went on to say that in the past few months some local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) delivered many medicines to his hospital but none was suitable for cancer treatment.

“We were forced to send all the drugs to other public hospitals because they are not for treating cancer. For example, paracetamol cannot treat the pain of a cancer patient but morphine can, but it isn’t available,” said Abdel-Razaq.

Doctors at Basra’s Maternity and Child Hospital said about 20 new cancer and leukaemia cases are reported among children each month. “It pains us to see so many children appearing in our clinics suffering from cancer and especially as we know they will die because they’ll not be treated,” said Dr Ali Hashimy, an oncologist at the hospital. “If medicines are available we could save at least 70 percent of them.”

as/ar/mw