Cost curtails cure for cancer

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As cancer spreads in India, fewer people are able to afford the crippling cost of medication, writes GAURAV SURATI

According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), there are about 2.5 million cancer sufferers in India. Considering nearly 40% of India’s population is below the poverty line, one can easily estimate that about 1 million poor souls suffer from various kinds of cancer. I usually don’t like using the terms ‘million’ or ‘billion’: they seem to suggest an over-exaggerated number. This especially holds true for India as everything from the number of people using trains on any given day or the total wheat production in a year will be comfortably in millions or billions. But I need to allude to large numbers in relation to the context of this report.

On March 12 this year the Government of India ruled that a specific medicine called ‘Nexavar’ used in treating cancer will be now manufactured under license by Indian pharma company Natco. Until then, Bayer, a major German pharmaceutical company held the rights to sell Nexavar in India.

What’s interesting is that Nexavar from Bayer which is used for chemotherapy costs about Rs. 2.8 lakh or should I say, Rs. 0.28 million, for a dose which would last a month. How on earth could any of the poor people suffering from cancer afford this? To overcome this problem and as per the ruling made by the Government, Natco will sell this same drug for only Rs. 8800, under compulsory license. Under compulsory license, lifesaving drugs are made available to nations where many people still can’t afford them. That’s a massive jaw-dropping plunge of 97%. This is indeed a right step in the right direction, which should be hailed. However, many experts from the field feel that, as also stated by leading oncologist Dr M Krishnan Nair, “These drugs are still too expensive for the poor”. Rs. 8800 is for the drug alone: what about cost of x-ray, radiography, surgery etc. This basically means that a person who barely eats a meal twice a day could easily look at around several thousand rupees just to start the treatment.

What needs to be done is not just bring cost of such a lifesaving drug lower, but also increase the health insurance cover. Only 15% of India’s 1.2 billion population is covered by health insurance as per Federation of Indian Chambers Commerce & Industry (FICCI).  The cost of health insurance is still high, and is still not widely acceptable. HK Savla, a managing trustee of Jeevan Jyot Cancer Relief and Care Trust says, “Hundreds of people come here every day. Whatever money we can collect is spent on their treatment. There is no help from the government.” Tata Memorial, one of the leading cancer cure hospitals in Mumbai which gets government and private funding, performs about 70,000 minor and major cancer surgeries a year and chemotherapy sessions for more than 300 patients a day. The number of people diagnosed with cancer in India is very likely to increase, and something needs to be done without any further delay.

Before us Indians start basking in the glory of ‘India becoming a future superpower’, we need to spare a thought for those poor back in India who are hardly making ends meet, earning under US$ 1.25 a day. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in the fields of healthcare, clean water, housing, energy etc. to provide these basic necessities. Now is the time for the well-off Indian diaspora in Australia and around the world to come together and put in some effort towards helping out. If you don’t have the financial means to help out by donating towards cancer research, you could give the best of yourself. Spend some time raising awareness about the disease and its causes, or support the forum which hopes to make life-saving drugs even more affordable to the poor. After all, what’s the point of India churning out millions of engineers, doctors, so-called ‘intellectuals’? What’s the point of 30 million Indian diaspora living across the globe when nearly one Indian in every three is battling to own even basic necessities, in addition to them not being able to afford proper medical treatment. This is not something to be proud of.

Kudos to all those who have directly or indirectly helped finally eradicate polio from India, as the World Health Organisation has finally ticked India off its polio list. After years of espousing this cause, we have met with success. Let’s try and do our best to help our country in the fight against cancer.

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