AFTER two decades, three governments, and the expenditure of millions, the long-awaited National Oncology Centre (NOC) has been shelved, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh finally confirmed during the budget debate this week.
It’s good that Deyalsingh put to rest long-simmering uncertainty and speculation over this project. But though many things have improved in cancer treatment over the years, the failure of any government to build the centre is a broken promise to the people of TT.
“It was simply too costly for the taxpayer to hold on to this dream,” said Deyalsingh in Parliament. He said the project was “fraught with difficulty from day one.” Day one came exactly 17 years ago when, on October 21, 2002, Patrick Manning acknowledged the prevalence of cancer among the population and made a pledge to the nation.
“We will…expand the capacity for cancer treatment with the establishment of a NOC for cancer patients,” Manning said, delivering the budget in his capacity as both prime minister and finance minister. The same project was subsequently mentioned in budget plans for the years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010. By 2010, a new government under Kamla Persad-Bissessar was singing the same tune.
“Next year, we will finally build the often promised and long-awaited NOC,” said Winston Dookeran in his presentation of budget 2011. Larry Howai, Dookeran’s successor in the same government, said, “In September 2013, construction will commence on the NOC with a scheduled completion date of January 2016.” None of these dates would be kept.
According to Udecott, the project had been meant to “transform the way in which cancer is treated by assembling specialists, facilities, technology and treatments in the same place, thereby increasing chances of recovery.” Its end represents a serious blow to the transformation of the health sector and to our health tourism potential.
Worryingly, cancer is a leading cause of death. Research published in the BMC Cancer journal last year in relation to this country found incident rates highest among men, Tobagonians, and people of African descent.
Overall, however, the disease does not discriminate though it is a particular threat to women. The highest rates were observed for cancers related to reproductive organs in women, namely, breast, cervical, and uterine cancers, and prostate, lung and colorectal cancers among men.
“Our findings highlight the need for national investment to improve the understanding of the epidemiology of cancer in TT, and to ultimately guide much needed cancer prevention,” wrote the team of researchers.
It’s heartening to know there is currently a very comprehensive suite of cancer services at facilities in St James, as well as various satellite health centres. And while there are many healthcare upgrades in the pipeline, the shelving of the NOC project should be urgently reviewed in light of the overwhelming need for even higher standards of intervention.