Cancer screening a rarity in UAE, survey finds

Doctors say there is a need for more awareness and for government screening programmes.

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ABU DHABI // More than four in five residents have never been screened for any type of cancer, a new survey has found.

Of 715 people across the UAE surveyed for Al Aan TV's Nabd al Arab ("Arabs' Pulse") programme by YouGov Siraj, barely one in 10 said they had been screened for cancer as a precautionary measure.

A further 6pc had been screened because their doctors suspected something was amiss.

Fifty-eight per cent of respondents said they would schedule a cancer screening if their doctor said they should, while 39 per cent said they would do it if it were free.

Of those who had not been screened for cancer, 26pc said it was because they did not know screening could be done.

Dr Shaheenah Dawood, a member of the Emirates Medical Association and a senior consultant oncologist in Dubai, said the results were not surprising.

"People cannot get screened if there are no screening programmes in place," she said. "There are plenty of messages to screen for breast cancer or colon cancer, but unlike the UK and the US and the whole of Europe, we don't have actual official screening programmes."

Ideally, patients would visit a GP or their family doctor regularly, who in turn would conduct general check-ups once a year and schedule a mandatory screening depending on the patient's medical and family history.

"Whether they are in the US or in Dubai, patients should have a family doctor whom they visit regularly for colds and flus and ailments, and that doctor will be the one to follow up with patients, be aware of their family history, schedule yearly check-ups, know when to advice them to get screened, whether for cancer or diabetes or heart disease."

Cost, she said, was another deterrent. Indeed, 16pc never bothered with screening because their insurance did not cover it, and almost 18pc said they were not aware of any hospitals that conducted screening programmes.

"If a woman wants to take the initiative and go to a private hospital for a mammogram, it can cost her Dh1,000 just for the test, then she has to pay the physician who will read the results and examine the breast and so on; it's too pricey," Dr Dawood said.

Dr Emad Al Rahmani, the chair of medicine at Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said women over 40 and men and women over 50 should be routinely screened for breast cancer and bowel cancer, regardless of family history.

However, 27pc of respondents who had never been screened said that was because there was no history of cancer in their families. A third said they would just "take care" of the cancer if they were suffering it.

When asked what they considered to be the main causes of cancer, 42pc included heredity.

However, Dr Dawood cautioned that "it is absolutely not true to only think you are at risk if you have family history".

He added, "If you look at the incidence of breast cancer across the globe, most women do not have a family history of the disease at all.

"Yes, the risk increases if a family member has had cancer, but it does not absolve one of the possibility of getting the disease."

Dr Zaid Al Mazam, an oncologist at Dubai Hospital, said sustained awareness programmes, to erase the myths of cancer and emphasise the importance of being screened, were imperative.

"Screening will not prevent cancer, but it will detect it early and at a stage that is treatable and can be cured," he said.

Both Dr Mazam and Dr Dawood identified screening for breast cancer as the priority, followed by colon cancer, cancer of the cervix and prostate cancer.

"It is the Government's role to support national screening programme, and have the resources to carry out these programmes for everyone, not just locals," Dr Mazam said.

A scheme launched last year in Abu Dhabi aimed to screen 15,000 nationals aged 50 to 75 for bowel cancer. If extended to the entire Emirati population, it would be the emirate's second mandatory cancer screening programme. Since two years ago, all Emirati women older than 40 have needed to be screened for breast cancer in order to renew their Thiqa health insurance cards.

In tonight's Nabd al Arab programme, its presenter, Maysoon Baraky, will be asking doctors why people are hesitant to get screened for cancer.

The survey also found that Emiratis do not put a lot of trust in the quality of cancer care and treatment in their country.

A third of Emiratis (33 per cent) said most cancer patients and survivors they knew went to Germany for treatment, and two in five said cancer patients preferred to travel to a non-Arab country.

Half of Emirati respondents said the cancer patients they knew went to the West for treatment. Only five per cent of Emiratis described the quality of cancer treatment in the UAE as “excellent”. Most described it as average (30pc) or poor (16pc).

“This lack of trust is unfounded, because contrary to general belief, we have excellent cancer treatment in the UAE,” said Dr Mazam.

Once diagnosed with cancer, he said, people automatically think the only way they can survive is to seek treatment abroad – an archaic perception.

“It is so much better for a patient to seek treatment in their own country, because treatment is long and hard,” he said. “The cost to seek treatment abroad, without the support of family nearby, is too much.”

Ms Baraky said it was a “typical Arab mentality” to want to run to the West for treatment.

“We need to have more trust and faith in our doctors and hospitals here, and that will come with awareness,” she said.