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Thousands of individuals in small Pacific nations are needlessly dying from “easily treatable” cancers because of inadequate health care systems, a new report shows.

In a report published in the Lancet Oncology, medical researchers claim the Pacific "has been largely neglected in global cancer control" and, as a result, contends with inadequate cancer surveillance, poor access to cancer treatments, and an ultimately overburdened health system.  

"Many Pacific Island countries and territories either lack or have poorly developed cancer screening, pathology, oncology, surgical, and palliative care services,” Diana Sarfati, lead report author and cancer researcher at New Zealand’s University of Otago, said in a statement. 

"Added to this, access to morphine is very limited, so death can often be excruciating,” Sarfati added. 

According to the report, the scarcity of cancer screening services means people often only pursue medical care when their symptoms and cancers reach critical stages. Separate data shows that from 2007 to 2015, over 70% of adult patients had their cancers diagnosed at or above stage three in United States-affiliated Pacific nations. 

The region also witnesses cancers linked to both obesity and tobacco use as well as those related to poverty.

"Cancers linked to poverty and infection are coinciding with those cancers that are more associated with a changing diet, physical inactivity, obesity, and exposure to tobacco, such as lung, breast, and uterine cancers,” Sarfati stated. 

According to the report, around 50% of cancer rates in men are cancers of the lip, prostate, stomach, lung, and liver. After breast cancer, cervical cancer is the leading cancer killer for Pacific women. Rates of cervical cancer have been linked to the region’s failure to routinely immunize girls and women against the cancer-causing human papillomavirus.

The lack of cancer care has also been linked to the region’s geographic issues. 

In Papua New Guinea, half the country is unreachable by road due to mountain ranges, vast wetlands, and large rivers — making attending hospitals and treatment centers for some citizens almost impossible, SBS reports. 

Likewise, citizens of Tokelau, a remote territory halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, must travel via Samoa to reach areas off the islands. The territory has no airport or port, and the boat journey to Samoa takes over 24 hours and is only available fortnightly.

The report has laid out six key recommendations to improve regional cancer outcomes.  

These include developing regional collaborative cancer approaches, ensuring cancer control is integral to the broader health agenda, and strengthening palliative care provision. The key recommendations were presented to regional health leaders this week at the Pacific Health Ministers Meeting in Tahiti. 

Following the report’s handover, the President of French Polynesia Édouard Fritch voiced his support for a regional cancer treatment hub to be built in Tahiti.

Likewise, Australia pledged just over $2 million AUD for preventative cancer efforts — including attempts to reduce childhood obesity and develop tobacco control laws and policy throughout the region. 

Papua New Guinea also committed $17.6 million USD to improve cancer treatment in the nation’s two largest hospitals.


Defeat Poverty

'Easily Treatable' Cancers Kill Thousands in the Pacific Each Year

By Madeleine Keck