Edmond Campbell, Senior Staff Reporter
THE INADEQUACY OF Jamaica's health sector to care for persons with one of the most dreaded critical illnesses - cancer - was exposed on Tuesday when a senior government technocrat admitted that the public health system can only care for 200 of the 900 new cancer patients diagnosed annually with the non-communicable disease.
Conceding that this situation is "alarming", Dr Kevin Harvey, acting chief medical officer, told members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that cancer is posing a serious challenge to the health sector.
But Harvey indicated that apart from the 200 new cancer cases dealt with each year, the Kingston Public Hospital (KPH) also provides continuing treatment to between 600 and 800 cancer patients every year.
One- to three-year wait
"From the 900 new patients, maybe 200 will get on in a year. Every year, you have 900 new; 700 remaining from the previous year, so you can imagine the wait time is between one and three years," Dr Harvey reasoned.
"Most of those who are on to radiotherapy - a lot of it is palliative care - it doesn't cure the cancer at all. It is about controlling pain and some of the other things," Dr Harvey explained.
"We at this time do not have the capacity to treat the cancer patients," the senior health official admitted.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health Dr Jean Dixon, who along with her senior health staff appeared before the PAC, pointed to a glimmer of hope for cancer patients. She said, as part of the proposed centre of excellence for treating cancer, the Government plans to procure two therapeutic pieces of equipment which are advanced technology over the cobalt now used to treat cancer.
"While cobalt is good for certain types, it is not the most efficient for all types of cancer," she said.
Dr Dixon said the ministry is seeking to acquire two linear accelerators (LINACs) in another 18 months.
One LINAC will be installed at the KPH while the other will be set up at the Cornwall Regional Hospital in St James.
The linear accelerators could cost the country US$10 million to procure and install.
Five LINACs needed
While the new machines are expected to double the health sector's capacity to treat cancer patients, Dr Harvey said a study done by the International Atomic Energy Agency has indicated that the sector would need five LINACs to manage the massive cancer case load.
"In addition, we would have to invest significantly in the training of specialist physicians and nurses and technologists to really manage those units, because we don't have a significant cadre in that area," he added.
He also shared with the committee the findings of an Inter American Development Bank study which looked at chronic illnesses in the country. He said the study indicated that in order to mitigate the impact of chronic illnesses such as cancer in Jamaica, the Government would have to increase its allocation to the health ministry by $10 billion each year until 2030.