Deep in thought.

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While being stuck on a flight for four hours in Hyderabad last week, I came across the latest issue of The Economist, and it really got me thinking. They’ve done a big feature on cancer this month–research, treatment, percentages and outlooks. First off: Thank you for that.

The numbers speak for themselves: Around 40% of Americans will be told they have some form of cancer during their lifetimes. Cancer is now a bigger killer of Africans than malaria. In the west, only heart disease causes more deaths. But despite these dark statistics, we’re getting better at everything–treating, spreading awareness, catching early symptoms, recovering, mental health, and generally just living long lives. On top of that, we’re getting better at measuring incidences and survival rates of cancers (which yes, I understand, is a partial factor of all these incidence rates going up, up, up).

Big healthcare budgets are praised as the solution to all-evil-cancer, and of course, money obviously helps, but the truth is, several developing nations are proving great success in cancer prevention. Not treatment, but prevention, because prevention is cheap, and treatment isn’t. Take Rwanda, as an example.

In 2011, Rwanda started a programme of free routine vaccinations against HPV, which can cause cancer in the female cervix. I personally took that same vacation in Sweden 10-12 years ago. Rwanda plans to eradicate cervical cancer by 2020. According to Rwanda’s Minister of Health, “Children and adolescents are the future of the country, and therefore we prioritize their health, both for themselves and for the future of Rwanda.”

A majority of my female friends in India have never been for a pap smear–an acquaintance I recently spoke with didn’t even know what it was. The same pap smear is mandatory and free of charge for all in Sweden every three years after the age of 26. Testicular self-exams are taught to teenage boys when they come for general health checkups. Women over 40 are called for frequent breast examinations to catch breast cancer early.  The HPV vaccine is recommended and available at no cost for girls at the age of 11 and up.

According to The Economist, research shows vaccinations could help prevent cervical cancer in 120,000 Indian women each year. But we’re still not regularly vaccinating, and hospitals & clinics are still not offering standardised routine pap-smears or mammogram reminders.

The point The Economist is making is, policymakers are not powerless, and because of poor policy making, millions of people die due to cancer every year–in India and elsewhere. The Indian government needs to give people the option of protecting themselves. Educate people to care about their bodies and their health. Make the HPV vaccine free of charge, and make pap smears mandatory…


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