National Cancer Fund Imminent As Covid-19 Consequences Will Increase Cases — Charles Santiago

Poverty and job and income losses brought about by Covid-19 mean that the government must act now on cancer care.

We already know that cancer is the fourth most common cause of death in Malaysia. The question is if the situation will become worse due to Covid-19.

Poverty is associated with higher cancer rates, cancer risk factors such as obesity, and lack of access to cancer screening and treatment.

In Malaysia, 580,000 households have slipped into the B40 economic category due to the Covid-19 pandemic. JobStreet estimates two million Malaysians will end up unemployed.

Since poverty, income and job losses are persistent problems, the government should establish a National Cancer Fund under the 12th Malaysia Plan to ensure access to treatment and medication for the poor.

Dr André Ilbawi of the World Health Organization (WHO) said the pandemic’s impact on cancer care has been devastating, with 50 per cent of governments’ cancer services partially or completely disrupted.

According to him, late diagnosis is common, and interruptions in therapy or abandonment have increased significantly. Dr Ilbawi also warned that this would likely have an impact on 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, daily new cancer cases have doubled within four years, recording 133 new cases and 80 deaths per day due to cancer.

We should 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 cost of 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 their annual household incomes related to cancer care will be pushed into financial catastrophe after a year from diagnosis.

According to Malaysian Employers Federation president Syed Hussain Syed Husman, 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 normal.

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 WHO’s recommendation of 300 for its population of 31.6 million.  

As only about 17 new oncologists are produced yearly according to existing master’s degree programmes, Malaysia needs more than ten years to achieve the 300-oncologist benchmark.

Hence, the National Cancer Fund should also aim to invest more in 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 United States, in establishing coalitions, assessing the burden of cancer care, 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 has fallen on deaf ears.

Poverty and job and income losses brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic mean that the government must act now.

Charles Santiago is the Member of Parliament for Klang.

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