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Experts: Russia Hit by Cancer Epidemic
Russia’s current healthcare system cannot cope with the scale of what they see as a cancer epidemic in the country, a number of Russia’s top oncologists admitted at a conference in Moscow on Monday.
Each year in Russia, 300,000 people die of cancer.
Around 2.5 million Russians suffer from cancer, and more than 450,000 new cases are registered annually. The average age of cancer patients in Russia is 63.3 for men and 62.9 for women.
Cancer specialists are calling for the government to take immediate steps, including funding a federal program aimed at combating cancer.
“A special service must be created that would be directly responsible to the government and the parliament,” said Mikhail Davydov, the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Davydov was speaking at the “Movement Against Cancer” forum that opened in Moscow on Monday.
“But most importantly, the state is responsible for the health of its citizens, including the two million cancer sufferers,” he said.
Davydov urged the government to substantially increase the funding for buying more equipment and medicines to enable doctors to provide the necessary treatment for all patients.
“For instance, Russia has only 70 radiation therapy machines, while there are around 3,000 in U.S. clinics,” Davydov said. To make matters worse, of the very few machines that Russia does have, a large proportion are outdated and are therefore of little help.
The gap between conditions in some Moscow clinics and hospitals in small towns in other regions is huge and felt on all levels, from equipment to training, experts say.
Healthcare is one of Russia’s four declared “national projects,” along with education, housing, and agriculture. First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, President Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor, is responsible for these projects.
However, oncology or cancer treatment is not listed as a priority in healthcare projects, Davydov said.
Cancer is widely seen in Russia as an untreatable illness. Public awareness of new methods and medicines is very low, the doctors said.
Vladimir Semiglazov, the director of the Petrov Oncology Institute, said many Russian women are reluctant to undertake regular breast screening, and often contact clinics when the illness is in an advanced stage.
“In countries where women undergo regular breast screening, the number of fatal cases of breast cancer has been in decline,” Semiglazov said. “In Russia, by contrast, breast cancer fatalities have increased by 13 percent during the past 8 years.”
Semiglazov said the breast cancer statistics for Russia today are seemingly worse than Soviet era figures, when fewer opportunities were available in terms of both screening and treatment. In 2006, almost 20 percent of all breast cancer patients died in Russia, whereas only 13.5 percent of patients died in 1980.
Many people postpone seeing a doctor until it becomes impossible to ignore symptoms and the disease progresses to its final stages.
Boris Poddubny, head of the endoscopic division of Russia’s Blokhin Oncology Medical Center, urged doctors to change their attitudes and be more outspoken both with their patients and the media.
“People need to know as much as possible about their condition and what can be done to help it,” Poddubny said. “They need to know that there are methods and medicines to treat their illness. At the very least we need to get everyone to learn once and for all that a timely diagnosis can lead to a complete recovery.”
However, with many treatments unavailable, education is only part of the answer. Drugs for certain illnesses, including many types of cancer, are free on prescription and according to government estimates, about 5 million people can technically benefit from the system.
But the government has failed to provide enough funds for the program. In 2007, the 34.9 billion rubles ($1.4 billion) allocated to the system was less than half the 74.5 billion rubles spent in 2006, Dmitry Reikhart, head of the Federal Fund for Obligatory Medical Insurance, told reporters at a Moscow press conference in October 2007.
To complicate matters further, the government has been slow to pay drug providers, resulting in diminished supplies. The state debt amounts to about 20 billion rubles, down from about 36 billion rubles in January 2007, according to Tatyana Golikova, minister for health and social development.