Beating cancer a dollar at a time

Forward Nyanyiwa
As the country is being treated to the circus surrounding the battle to succeed ailing MDC leader Mr Morgan Tsvangirai, which is now playing ugly in the public domain, it can only be wished that the warring factions —fronted by Engineer Elias Mudzuri, Madam Thokozani Khupe and the charismatic youthful Advocate Nelson Chamisa —instead become more concerned with the welfare of their leader.

His Excellency, Cde Emmerson Mnangagwa, recently visited the ailing MDC leader at his Highlands residence and assured him, among other things, that the Government will foot his medical bills, which has been the primary source of worry in his life.

Mr Tsvangirai went public in 2016 and told the nation that he is fighting cancer of the colony. Since then, he has been shuttling between Harare and Pretoria to seek medical attention.

Today, Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world in commemorating World Cancer Day and there could be no better time to spare a thought for those suffering from cancer. This year’s commemorations are being held under the theme “We can, I can”. It gives organisations and individuals an opportunity to reflect on what they can do to make a difference in the fight against cancer.

Like most developing countries in the world, Zimbabwe has suffered the wrath of cancer for too long.

However, the country has made significant strides in combating HIV and Aids since the turn of the millennium. The HIV prevalence rate has drastically dropped from 33 percent to 13,3 percent.

Among a cocktail of interventions that has seen the country fighting the once deadly disease head-on has been the introduction of the Aids Levy in 2000.

The Aids Levy, together with complementary resources pooled from elsewhere, has helped the country to reduce the effects of HIV and Aids.

Zimbabwe can take a similar route in fighting cancer once and for all.

Early in 2017, while officiating at the opening ceremony of the Mpilo Central Hospital Cancer Unit, the Minister of Health and Child Care, Dr David Parirenyatwa, was quoted as saying the issue of a Cancer Levy was under discussion in Government.

“We are having an active discussion about the Cancer Levy since we have an Aids Levy. We tried to treat HIV-related cancers with the Aids Levy. However, because the cancer drugs are so expensive, they need to be looked at separately. In fact, cancer treatment has the most expensive drugs,” said Dr Parirenyatwa then.  However, with the Government mooting a Cancer Levy, observers argue this will burden the already overtaxed worker and as such, the country needs to explore other avenues to mitigate the effects of expensive cancer treatment.

Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Union (ZFTU) secretary-general, Mr Kennias Shamhuyarira, said it will be unfair on the part of the workers to have another tax load on top of what is already obtaining.

“Zimbabwean workers are the only ones in the Sadc region who do not have a minimum wage. The little they are getting is already overtaxed. There is NSSA and we don’t have a problem with that. We also have Aids Levy and it should stop there.

“The Government must find other ways of subsidising cancer treatment, not to introduce this levy at the expense of the already overburdened worker. We can’t have a situation where we levy everything,” argued Mr Shamhuyarira.

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Child Care Dr Gerald Gwinji however refuted that a Cancer Levy is in the making. “There is no Cancer Levy at the moment. But we are preparing for the commemorations (of World Cancer Day),” he said.

Parliamentary Chairperson of the Health Committee, Honourable Ruth Labode also concurred.

“I don’t remember any Cancer Levy being discussed, there is nothing like that,” she said. Observers have been asking why patients flock to South Africa and India to seek treatment.

Dr Ndlovu, an Oncologist in Harare, said Zimbabwe has the medical expertise and equipment to treat cancer.

“Zimbabwe has got some of the best machines you can think of in the world. We also pride ourselves with the best doctors one can think of in terms of cancer treatment. The problem is that the machines are lying idle and they need servicing. That is all that is lacking. Also the costs of other drugs are exorbitant but we can do it here without patients having to go beyond the borders,” she said.

Respected medical analyst and Executive Director of the Community Working Group on Health (CWGH), Mr Itai Rusike is of the view that the country is lagging behind in terms of health funding and that the Government should devise a funding mechanism.

“The inadequate funding for health care has seen the country not being able to realise its full potential of providing sufficient and quality services to its people. Chronically-ill patients who require constant supplies of expensive medication have been hit hard.

“There is need for the Government to devise a funding mechanism for cancer. Instead of a separate levy, innovative domestic health financing strategies can grow the Aids Levy so that it can fully fund cancer programmes,” said Mr Rusike.

He said as the country surges on the recovery path, a National Health Insurance Scheme can be established to mitigate the challenges. “We support the creation of a sustainable National Health Insurance Scheme inorder to reduce the current high levels of health spending,” he said.

Mr Rusike added that consultations should start now in order to build confidence and get the buy in of the public.

“The current economic situation may not allow for its immediate implementation but it is important to start the dialogue now to get the buy in from the public. The process must be transparent and have a clear accountability mechanism.

“Everyone, including those in the informal sector will have to contribute towards this cause, although the rich will have to pay more to subsidise the poor.”

Cancer Association of Zimbabwe, itself a non-profit organisation, has been overwhelmed by patients seeking financial assistance. A statement from the organisation said, “The biggest challenge we have is that of patients and families who come seeking financial assistance for investigations, hospitals bills or procedures. However, we are not able to give such assistance since we are a welfare organisation.

“Our main thrust is in creating an awareness of cancer prevention, including screening and counselling of patients and family members.”

But through assistance from local organisations, they have managed to help some patients access drugs.

“It is very difficult to have the exact number of patients on our registers but in 2017 we managed to help 902 patients.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancer is a generic term for a large group of diseases characterised by growth of abnormal cells beyond their usual boundaries that can invade adjourning parts of the body. In Zimbabwe, the costs of radiotherapy ranges from $3 000 to $6 000 while chemotherapy costs between $100 and $1 000 per session. A person can have as many as 12 sessions.

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