Providing cancer care in low-resourced regions already constitutes a task in creative thinking to ensure an optimal allocation of resources and avoid seeing even more people die of cancers that, in other circumstances, could have been avoided or treated. Weak health infrastructure, considerable budget constraints, a low awareness of cancer risks among the population, few if any prevention programmes and limited treatment options, are challenges they face daily.
In countries marked by political, financial and social instability, if not an outright situation of violence and conflict, cancer organisations additionally face harrowing shortages of qualified staff as people flee conflict, as well as even the most basic medicines, a lack of purchasing power and a near-breakdown in health services.
Marking World Refugee Day on Sunday 20th June, UICC is initiating a series of articles profiling the incredible work of UICC member organisations in zones of unrest – Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan and Honduras. These organisations are part of UICC’s Cancer Advocates programme; their stories provide invaluable insight into their daily struggle to support cancer patients and their families in the most difficult circumstances, and highlight their ongoing advocacy with their governments and third-party organisations to help overcome some of the major gaps in essential care and to ensure that more resources are dedicated to cancer.
The series starts with Children's Cancer Center of Lebanon (CCCL), who works tirelessly to ensure that all children with cancer living in Lebanon, whatever their origin, receive treatment at no cost to their parents. Since 2002, the CCCL has treated, over 2,500 children with cancer and offered more than 5,000 external medical consultations to patients from all over Lebanon and the region: with an average 80% cure rate.
This progress is now threatened by a financial, economic and political crisis that has affected Lebanon since 2019 and which has only intensified with the spread of COVID-19 and the Beirut blast. According to Mrs Karen Khoury, Public Relations and External Affairs Manager for the CCCL, the Lebanese currency has lost almost 90% of its value since October 2019. This has led to widespread poverty, a massive drain on human resources and the suspension of government subsidisation of some basic commodities.
“With the increased poverty, unemployment and national political and economic crisis, cancer patients are turning to civil society organisations and NGOs for support in covering not only treatment costs and medications but even basic needs such as food.”
– Mrs Karen Khoury, Public Relations and External Affairs Manager for the Children's Cancer Center of Lebanon (CCCL)
Cancer care and treatment are at high risk, with many medications out of stock and those that can be purchased must be acquired abroad and paid for in US dollars and in cash. “Third-party payer coverages have been reviewed and suspended in many hospitals and patients are increasingly burdened with out-of-pocket payments,” Mrs Khoury explains.
Organisations in cancer care and other similar organisations face a real issue of survival. Despite the enormous challenges, CCCL continues to engage in proactive work, investing a lot of effort in contingency planning – but even this has become difficult with all upheavals affecting the country. “Our main objective remains to ensure that every child with cancer in Lebanon has access to adequate treatment, though this does not come at an easy price,” says Mrs Khoury. Furthermore, for CCCL “every child in Lebanon” applies also to the thousands of refugees that the country has accommodated in recent years from conflict zones such as Syria.
CCCL’s efforts are currently focused on working with the Lebanese government and third-party providers such as NGOs to optimise resources for as long as possible. The organisation also launched a COVID-19 vaccine programme in March 2021 for the parents and family members of patients, who can potentially place young cancer patients at risk if they contract the virus, as well as an HPV vaccine programme to provide awareness, access and coverage of the HPV vaccine to young boys and girls.
“In challenging countries like Lebanon, and from the CCCL experience, one thing we can share is the importance of keeping all stakeholders close to your cause and mission; engaging them and developing good relations which, in time of crisis can go a long way in safeguarding the cause and supporting each other.”
– Mrs Karen Khoury, Public Relations and External Affairs Manager for the Children's Cancer Center of Lebanon