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The three-day event is hearing from more than 50 experts from the UAE, region and around the world on latest cancer trends Image Credit: Supplied

Sharjah: The second day of the fifth Combined Global Cancer Conference (CGCC) in Sharjah heard from healthcare professionals citing the importance of observing and studying the unique demographics of the Gulf region to help in designing screening programmes accordingly.

Panellists called for more research data focused on populations from the region, significantly younger compared to the Western world whose data is the base for most international protocols, to better understand public health and behaviours and target potential cancer cases early on.

During the third track of the CGCC conference, Elfatih Abdelraheem, HIV, Health and Development Policy Specialist, UNDP - Turkey, highlighted the significance of governments investing in public health.

“More than 250,000 premature deaths were averted within the GCC within the last 15 years, thanks to the increased government spending and investments in cancer care. This is in accordance with the data based on six extensive studies conducted to assess the socio-economic impact of non-communicable diseases (NCD) within the GCC countries, in cooperation with the participation of Ministries of Health and Gulf Health Council (GHC),” said Abdelraheem.

Why invest in cancer care?

Abdelraheem also stressed that developing economies are significantly affected by cancer premature deaths that do not spare the youth who are the vital pillar of the workforce.

“It is vital for authorities to work with regional and international partners to strengthen non-health sector roles in addressing NCDs which includes cancer. More advanced legislative action through legal analysis, regional cooperation, and targeted advocacy and support is a must in moving forward to a progressive direction. Economists must advocate for disease-specific interventions looking at social benefits including lives saved as return on investment.”

Dr Mushabab Ali Asiri, Head of Saudi National Cancer Institute (SNCI), showcased several projects that he said promise a better future for healthcare in the Gulf, referencing the Saudi Arabia’s plan to provide all residents with early detection opportunities through government health centres in the next two years.

“There was a decrease in death rate by 29 per cent between 1991 and 2017. Also, 20 per cent improvement was noted in the five-year survival rate for all types of cancer, and many cancer patients are able to continue their lives much more than five years after being diagnosed with cancer,” Dr Asiri said.

He added that cost itself is “a disease” and inflation worsens accessibility of healthcare.

“Cost effectiveness is an important factor for patients wanting to choose advanced treatments. Cancer patients need an additional cost, an increase of 27 per cent, for their medical treatments, with annual mean costs counting four times more, and medical expenditures comprise 61 per cent higher in cancer households than normal ones.”

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Childhood survival rates

UAE’s first pediatric oncologist, Dr Eman Al Shamsi, Consultant and Head of Pediatric Hematology Oncology Department - UAE, spoke on the role of early detection and screening in improving cancer outcomes, with a focus on children. “Childhood survival rate is increasing thanks to all the supporting measures adopted by different departments in cancer care. Even if the survival rate is 100 per cent, we need to catch them young, so they get minimum exposure to radiation and other toxicities and will help elongate adult lives without compromising on their quality of life,” Dr Al Shamsi.

She added that cancer screening programmes must also help the target population to access effective treatment for those diagnosed with the disease.

The COVID impact

Screening systems across the world went through an intense crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Giles Davies, Director of Surgery, Cromwell Hospital – UK. “While screenings were stopped for a few years, it also helped to streamline procedures through integrated processes like multidisciplinary decision-making; responsive pathways in patient care; and providing primary and secondary healthcare in the same physical location. Hospitals should focus on patient-centric metrics and profiling the wider population will help understand the disease better,” he added.

Social acceptance

The fourth track of the three-day conference focused on the barriers and opportunities for the medical sector in achieving more awareness and mobilising more population towards regular screening activities.

Dr Omniyat Al Hajeri, Executive Director of Community Health Sector (ADPHC) - UAE, shared her experiences of conducting screening processes and early detection in the UAE. Dr Aydha Al Awadhi, Consultant Medical Oncologist, Tawam Hospital, UAE, highlighted the different tiers of medical care available in the country in prevention, detection, diagnosis, treatment and surviving cancer.

Thomas Hofmarcher, Research Director, The Swedish Institute for Health Economics, addressed the various challenges - social, economic, and cultural - in early detection and screening of cancer, particularly with the Gulf region.

Dr Manal Elewah, Certified Art Therapist and WHO Egypt Representative GICC - Egypt, spoke on the psychological and behavioural aspects that will enhance self-awareness on general health and cancer for a peaceful life after diagnosis. She also talked about the psycho-oncology programme on art therapy intervention.

Dr Asma Alkusayer, College of Science and Health Professions, KSAU-HS - KSA, shed light on the present situation of cancer within the GCC and the challenges and stigma that needs collective attention.

Meanwhile, Alistair Fry, Consultant Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Cromwell Hospital - UK, gave an exclusive presentation on how early diagnoses can improve outcomes, including cosmetics, while dealing with mouth cancer.