OCTOBER 6 — We already know that cancer is the fourth most common cause of death in Malaysia. But the question is if this would become worse due to Covid-19.
Poverty is associated with higher cancer rates, cancer risk factors such as obesity plus lack of access to cancer screening and treatment.
In Malaysia 580,000 households have slipped into the B40 economic category from being middle class due to Covid-19. And JobStreet estimates two million Malaysians would end up unemployed.
Since poverty, income and job losses are staring at us in our faces, the government should establish a National Cancer Fund under the 12th Malaysia Plan to ensure access to treatment and medication for the poor.
More than a year since the pandemic, Dr André Ilbawi from the World Health Organization says its impact on cancer care has been stark, with “50 per cent of governments’ cancer services partially or completely disrupted”.
According to him, late diagnoses are common and interruptions in therapy or abandonment have increased significantly. Dr Ilbawi also warns that this would likely have an impact in the total number of cancer deaths in coming years.
In our case, the Global Cancer Observatory reported that 128,018 Malaysians have been diagnosed with cancer since 2015, with 48,639 new cases and 29,530 deaths last year.
In 2020, the daily new cancer cases have doubled within four years, recording 133 new cases and 80 deaths per day due to cancer.
Let’s ask ourselves this question: How would Malaysians who have lost jobs due to the pandemic and are struggling to put food on the table or make rent, afford cancer treatments?
The entire cancer medication and chemotherapy could easily range from RM50,000 to a whopping RM395,000.
According to the George Institute for Global Health, around 51 per cent who spent 30 per cent of annual household income related to cancer care, will be pushed into financial catastrophe after a year from diagnosis.
Malaysian Employers Federation president Datuk Dr Syed Hussain Syed Husman says many jobs lost during the Covid-19 pandemic may not be refilled when the economy reopens, even when the population is fully vaccinated, because of the much-changed employment landscape in the new norm.
Labour demand may nosedive with the shift to remote working, automation and digitalisation.
The government should therefore inject a minimum of RM50 million to set up the National Cancer Fund to help those with a household income of RM5,000 and below, making drugs and treatment affordable and accessible to the poor.
Currently, Malaysia as an upper-middle country, only has 117 oncologists in the country: out of this 68 are in the private sector, 35 in public hospitals and 14 in universities.
This means that Malaysia still lacks 183 oncologists, which is 2.5 times lesser than the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of 300 for its 31.6 million population.
As only about 17 new oncologists are produced yearly according to the existing Master’s graduate programmes, Malaysia needs more than ten years to achieve the 300-oncologists benchmark.
Hence, the National Cancer Fund should also aim to invest more in the human capital and infrastructure to ensure that more oncologists are trained.
And as late diagnosis lowers survival rates the government must also look at an integrated plan, similar to the National Comprehensive Cancer Control Programme in the US, in establishing coalitions, assessing the burden of cancer, determining priorities, and developing and implementing comprehensive cancer control plans.
I have been talking about the setting up of a National Cancer Fund over the last few years but it fell on deaf ears.
But the poverty, job and income losses brought about by Covid-19 mean that the government must act now.
*Charles Santiago is Member of Parliament Klang.
**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.