Health services fail to cope with cancer increase

More and more families are pooling funds to seek treatment overseas as the country witnesses a steep rise in cancer cases, which cannot be treated locally as facilities are insufficient.

A report by the PNG Health Department's technical adviser for lifestyle disease, Thomas Vinit, has revealed significant increases in cases of cancer, particularly among females.

He said lifestyle habits were a major contributing factor, including smoking (lung, mouth, breast, cervical and uterine cancer), chewing betel nut (mouth cancer), not breast-feeding (breast cancer), illegal abortions (cervical and uterine cancer), multiple sexual partners (cervical cancer), obesity (breast, uterine and ovarian cancer) and heavy drinking (liver cancer).

The most common cancer in the female population is cervical at 21.6 percent followed by mouth and breast cancer. Significant increases reflect a rise in reporting, said analysts.

Statistics from 2000-2004 show breast cancer in the 15-44 age group rising from 8.49 per 100,000 in 2000 to 46.54 in 2004. Cervical cancer has also increased, from 69.86 per 100,000 in 2000 to 96.79 in 2004.

Oral cancer rose from 26.61 per 100,000 in 2000 to 41.74 in 2004 per 100,000 in the same age group.

"The rates are universally comparative within the age group and it is called the age standardised rate [ASR]," he told IRIN. "Compared with global rates, we have the highest rate in oral and cervical cancer ASR," Vinit said.

Vinit also noted that the real figures could be higher as the technologies used in PNG were not up to date and most cases were not treated in the healthcare system.

Lifestyle links

The most common cancer in males is mouth cancer, followed by liver, both linked to smoking and excessive drinking, though no detailed figures of cases are available.

The country has not had a radio-therapy unit for more than 10 years since the one at the Angau Memorial Hospital in Lae, Morobe Province, broke down. Many cancer victims have died without radiotherapy treatment as a result. No chemotherapy regimens are available either.

A new cancer unit in Lae was to open in September 2008; however, it is now scheduled to open at the end of the year. Health Department Secretary Clement Malau said the unit was in place but awaiting an oncologist from Australia, who will train PNG doctors and technicians.

"We don't have specialists so we're getting one from Australia, possibly two, to help us train the people there [in Lae]," he said.

There is also a shortage of staff to deal with diagnostics and clinical care of patients diagnosed with cancer, Malau said.

The campaign for the cancer unit was first initiated in 2004 by the Women Doctors' Association, with support from former Health Minister Sir Peter Barter in 2004.

The campaign has raised 300,000 kina (US$135,000) since 2004 and secured government support from the health department and a K5 million ($21 million) allocation in the 2007 national supplementary budget for the re-establishment of the Radiotherapy Unit.

cp/bj/mw