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Cancer patients in Mexico face dire scenario in wake of COVID-19

In a recent webinar, public health experts explored what should be happening in the Latin American country to assist those facing the deadly disease during the pandemic.
Paramedics speak with medical staff as ambulances wait hours for the COVID-19 patients they are transporting to be admitted, at Siglo XXI Medical Center in Mexico City, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. A line of five ambulances spent hours outside the hospital Thursday afternoon waiting for their patients to be admitted, as hospitals in the capital near full capacity amid an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases in Mexico.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Paramedics speak with medical staff as ambulances wait hours for the COVID-19 patients they are transporting to be admitted, at Siglo XXI Medical Center in Mexico City, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Photo: Associated Press

University of Miami President Julio Frenk joined a panel of other public health experts on World Cancer Day last week to explore how the battle against the COVID-19 virus in Mexico and fledgling health care reforms have exacerbated an already critical situation for cancer patients. 

The event, “Attention for Cancer Patients in Mexico during COVID-19,” hosted in part by the University’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, was moderated by Felicia Knaul, institute director, public health expert, and a cancer survivor. The session aimed to inspire action and to raise awareness for the plight of patients in Mexico suffering from cancer. 

Knaul launched the session by sharing data from a newly released article in the The Lancet Oncologymedical journal that detailed the shortages of oncological medicines and documented how treatments for cancer patients in Mexico, especially those with breast cancer, have been delayed, eliminated, or modified in the wake of health care reforms and the government’s attempt to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s likely that we will see a tsunami of deaths in the coming years if things don’t change,” she said, highlighting indicators and trends from the report. 

Frenk lamented the Mexican government’s “abysmal” response to managing the pandemic and contrasted the newly implemented government-managed health program with the universal health care coverage offered for many years through Seguro Popular. 

As Mexico’s health minister from 2000 to 2006, Frenk was instrumental in fueling the effort to create and implement that policy, which provided coverage and care to more than 50 million Mexicans. Seguro Popular was slowly dismantled and officially ceased to exist on Jan. 1, 2020, replaced by a health program known as INSABI [its Spanish-language acronym] and directed by the National Health Institute for Wellbeing. 

Cancer care for children and for women with breast cancer were among the priorities for Seguro Popular and a specific fund provided free care for all cancer treatment for children, according to Frenk. Among the policy’s many successes, he highlighted the fact that, prior to Seguro Popular, some 30 percent of Mexican women with breast cancer abandoned their treatment and care due to lack of money; after its implementation, that percentage dropped to 3 percent.

“What we’re seeing today are the results of the failure,” Frenk said, “and it’s not government officials but cancer patients in Mexico who are bearing the suffering.” 

Those participating in the two panels included Salomon Chertorivski, a former Mexican health minister and president of the consultancy coalition “Thinking About Mexico”; Rocio Saenz, dean of the University of Costa Rica School of Public Health and a former Costa Rican health minister; Alfonso Petersen, vice dean of Health Sciences Universidad of Guadalajara; Lizbeth Lopez, a researcher with the Mexican National Institute for Public Health; Hector Valle, executive president of the Mexican Health Foundation; Kenji Lopez, president of Mexican Cancer Warriors; Alejandra De Cima, president of the Cima Foundation and member of the Mexican Breast Cancer Coalition; and Hector Arreola Ornelas, executive director of the Tomatelo a Pecho, an organization founded by Knaul.

Chertorivski echoed Frenk’s concerns for the new health care reforms and said it was critical to look to the future. 

“We have to think about the next stage to come,” he said. “The health care system is changing radically, and we have to think about future needs. In terms of cancer, it’s critical to detect it. We understand that it’s a reality that we can’t escape—it’s in our hands to determine that at least those who die from cancer do so without pain and with dignity.” 

World Cancer Day, marked on Feb. 4, is promoted by the Union for International Cancer Control and geared to encouraging governments around the world to ensure that access to life-saving diagnosis, treatment, and care for cancer should be available for all.