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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Cancer is one of the biggest killers in the UAE - and the cost of treatment can be a double blow

A lack of regulation and high drug prices mean families devastated by a diagnosis can struggle to pay for treatment for the disease

Dubai resident Hana Abu Lughod was diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 32 but when her medical insurance ran out, she had to seek financial assistance from family, friends and charity organisations, something many cancer patients experience due to the high costs of treatment
Dubai resident Hana Abu Lughod was diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 32 but when her medical insurance ran out, she had to seek financial assistance from family, friends and charity organisations, something many cancer patients experience due to the high costs of treatment

It is a devastating diagnosis that can have far-reaching consequences for a family and community at large, as well as the patient. A cancer diagnosis can often spell months, if not years, of gruelling treatments, anguish and heartache for all affected. The third biggest killer in Abu Dhabi, the disease accounts for 16 per cent of all deaths in the UAE, with breast, lung and colorectal cancer among the most fatal. Even for those who make a full recovery, there is the risk of patients suffering long-term stress, despair, anxiety and depression amid fears they have no control over their own bodies. The rigours of treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy can take their toll physically, emotionally and psychologically.

Yet UAE cancer patients are paying the price of escalating costs of cancer care – one they can little afford. The cancer charity Rahma estimates chemotherapy can cost up to Dh32,000 a month. With a course of treatment potentially lasting months, that cost can prove crippling for even middle-income families, let alone those on lower wages. Yet the options are limited for those who came here for work, only to find themselves knocked sideways with the diagnosis of a potentially life-threatening illness. They are faced with the difficult choice of paying up, returning to their home country at further cost in the hope of more affordable treatment, or, as in the case of Umaima Tinwala, buying chemotherapy drugs for a fraction of the UAE cost in places like India. Rahma’s director general Nora Al Suwaidi says high prices are making cancer drugs inaffordable and inaccessible – and as a result, putting lives at risk. Insurance companies and health authorities carry some of the responsibility through a lack of regulation and failure to control drug prices. Because most cancer drugs are imported, there is an over-reliance on high-priced branded medication, which is often beyond what the average family can afford and not always covered by health insurance.

Cancer diagnoses are on the rise, with foreign residents accounting for two-thirds of those dying from the disease. It serves no one's interests for the health or wellbeing of the population to be compromised. It is, however, in all our interests for vital medication to be made accessible and affordable for all.