Cancer prevalence in Cambodia’s seniors will grow by close to 300 per cent – much faster than in other ASEAN countries – over the next two decades, according to a World Bank report on ageing released on Wednesday.
Even now, certain cancers, such as cervical or liver, have a higher prevalence in Cambodia than any other ASEAN countries, according to Dr Eav Sokha, director of oncology at Calmette Hospital.
Despite Cambodia’s youthful population, low rates of screening, poor access to preventive care and treatment and environmental risk factors are exacerbating the problem, experts say.
“If we are talking about some specific cancer like uterine or cervical, I think we have strong evidence that Cambodia has the highest incidence in the ASEAN community,” said Sokha.
Cambodia’s health policy is geared towards fighting communicable diseases like dengue, HIV and tuberculosis, according to the World Health Organization. But as life expectancy increases, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) become the main population-killers.
“A lot of attention is given to NCDs, but they are not receiving the funding,” said James Rarick, a technical officer on NCDs at the WHO’s Cambodian office. “About 6 per cent of the national budget is spent on NCDs and yet half of [the Kingdom’s] mortality cases come from NCDs.”
Cambodia lacks comprehensive statistics on cancer, but the WHO estimates 14,000 to 15,000 new cases every year.
The Kingdom also has some of the highest mortality from cancer in the region – the risk of dying from cancer before age 75 is 12 per cent here, on par with Myanmar and slightly behind Laos. Other countries in the region tend to have a chance of 9-10 per cent.
An oncology centre currently under construction in Phnom Penh is scheduled to open its doors in late 2016. Until then, most patients get their screening or treatment at Calmette or the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital.
Sokha said that provincial hospitals lack the ability to effectively screen for cancer or provide treatments. Most Cambodians find it too costly or time-consuming to travel to Phnom Penh to check their health status. So about 60 per cent of the time a cancer is discovered in Cambodia, it is already too late for the patient.
Environmental risks are also a big issue, according to the World Bank.
“The younger countries in the region are also the lower-income countries.
These countries have invested the least in cancer prevention to date, and have as much exposure to the major risk factors for cancer [smoking, air pollution etc] as middle-income countries in the region,” said Aparnaa Somanathan, a senior economist at the World Bank.
Rarick and Sokha said that the Kingdom should prioritise screening and vaccination for the Human Papilloma Virus, which leads to cervical cancer, as well as treatment for Hepatitis B, which can lead to liver cancer.
The high cost of HPV screenings and Cambodia’s relative poverty make it harder to fund such programs.
Ministry of Health preventive medicine specialists were unavailable for comment yesterday due to the public holiday.