Middle East needs new approach to fight region's cancer 'tsunami'

Summit on health care questions how ready nations are to tackle an expected surge in cancer

Only 30 per cent of low-income countries offer cancer treatment, while 90 per cent of high-income countries do, a report found AFP
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Earlier education on the threat of cancer and a united approach to treatment is needed to curb a wave of new cases forecast to hit the region.

Research by The Economist Intelligence Unit was used to compile an international index of cancer preparedness.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt were chosen as representatives of regional needs for cancer care.

The World Health Organisation says there was a large increase in cancer cases in GCC nations between 2008 and 2017.

The figures - released during the The Economist-hosted War on Cancer conference in Dubai on Tuesday - show UAE cancer rates increasing by 62 per cent in that time, and by 49 per cent in Saudi Arabia, largely a result of increased screening and improved diagnosis.

In Bahrain, cancer has increased by 29 per cent and in Oman by 14 per cent. The global average increase in cancer rates was 16 per cent.

Dr Younis Kazim, chief executive of the Dubai Healthcare Corporation, said a growing population was increasing the burden on cancer care providers.

“Oncology care in Dubai is available but currently fragmented,” Dr Kazim said.

“To deliver the services in the most financially optimal way, we have to enhance collaboration with the private sector.

“This will minimise the outflow of patients seeking care abroad and use the savings to deliver cost-effective improvements in local care.”

A third of cancer-related deaths are linked with five behavioural and dietary risks: being overweight, a lack of fruit and vegetables in the diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and smoking and alcohol use.

The Economist report found 90 per cent of high-income countries offer treatment for cancer, compared with only 30 per cent of low-income nations.

Globally, the cost of cancer care in 2010 was $1.16 trillion, (Dh4.26tn) with one death in six attributed to the disease.

Dr Shada Al Ghazali, head of cancer prevention and control at the Department of Health Abu Dhabi, said a national cancer registry, due to be published this year, will show incidence and mortality rates.

“We have been working on collecting data for the past six years to create a model that will evaluate patient information related to age, gender and family history,” Dr Al Ghazali said.

“By using artificial intelligence, this model will help us to screen patients and their risk and make an earlier diagnosis with a better outcome.”

The department also hopes to improve medical records from birth to monitor healthcare interactions with doctors and hospitals throughout a patient's life.

It has also suggested routine breast examinations could be done in women under 30 to improve the chance of an early breast cancer diagnosis.

One of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 is to reduce premature deaths from non-communicable diseases, including cancer, by 30 per cent.

Full details of the EIU index, to show how well prepared countries are to achieve this goal, are to be published within two weeks.

Dr Madhu Sasidhar, chief medical officer at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi's respiratory institute, said education on cancer should begin at a younger age to focus on prevention rather than treatment.

“We generally take a top down approach to cancer prevention, but it should begin in schools with education for children on how they can protect themselves from cancer with certain lifestyle choices,” Dr Sasidhar said.

“Obesity, lack of exercise and smoking increase the risk of cancer, and children need to be aware of that.”

Dr Azad Moopen, managing director at Aster Healthcare, said improved screening of lower-income workers, who make up a large percentage of the population, must also improve.

“According to our data, most of these people do not have access to cancer prevention information or to actual care if it is detected,” Dr Moopen said.

“Many of them are high risk as smokers with a poor diet. Free screening and health information programmes in labour camps could improve this area.”