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Pacific Health Ministers welcome major report on cancer in region

Monday 19 August 2019 10:21pm

At a meeting of Pacific Health Ministers in Tahiti (from left), Cook Islands Head of Health Dr Aumea Herman, Otago's Professor Diana Sarfati, Editor-in-Chief of Lancet Oncology Professor David Collingridge, and French Polynesia Minister of Health Dr Jacques Raynal (holding the Lancet Oncology special issue).

A major research series on cancer control in small island nations led by Professor Diana Sarfati from the University of Otago, Wellington, has been welcomed at the Pacific Health Ministers Meeting in Tahiti.

The series of five papers, published in the world-leading medical journal, The Lancet Oncology, in August, was a major undertaking involving 64 authors in 27 countries.

Professor Sarfati, the Director of the Cancer and Chronic Conditions Research Group and Head of the Department of Public Health, says it is the first time that information from around the region has been collected together in this way.

“This is the first time the Ministers have had the information and been able to see the magnitude of the problem.”

In the first paper in the series, Professor Sarfati outlines a grim picture of cancer care in the Pacific, saying many people are dying each year from highly treatable cancers because of a lack of cancer care services in the region.

"This is the first time the Ministers have had the information and been able to see the magnitude of the problem."

“Many Pacific Island nations are unable to provide cancer care, with patients not receiving care at all, receiving restricted treatment only, or being treated abroad when health-care resources allow. Added to this, access to morphine is very limited, so death can often be excruciating.”

Professor Sarfati says Ministers at the biennial Pacific Health Ministers Meeting responded positively to the recommendations made by researchers, including the idea of setting up a regional cancer centre to provide cancer treatment services.

“There is just not the population or the resources for every small Pacific Island country to have its own tertiary cancer centre, but if there was a central hub – perhaps in Fiji or French Polynesia – patients would no longer have to leave the region to get treatment.”

Pacific nations are facing the double burden of dealing with cancers linked to poverty and infection, as well as those associated with obesity and tobacco use, she says.

In a report following the meeting, Pacific Health Ministers agreed to consider preventive measures, such as a vaccination programme for Human papillomavirus (HPV) to protect against cervical cancer as well as ways of tackling childhood obesity and reducing smoking. They were also agreed on the importance of developing better palliative care services to ensure better and more coordinated access to morphine, Professor Sarfati says.

Around 16,200 new cancer cases and 9,800 cancer deaths are reported in Pacific Island nations annually. Around half of the cancer cases and deaths in men are due to cancers of the lung, liver, lip and oral cavity, prostate or stomach. Cervical cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer death in women (after breast cancer).