Our way (part 3) SAMRC Cancels funding for Cancer Research

This is difficult to comprehend.  This blog has posted before on some of ‘Our Ways’ of doing things (see here and here) We surely have some strange ways of doing business and here is a lulu.

There are many different types of cancer, which collectively is a significant killer in South Africa (in 2000, about 42 000 deaths or about 3500 deaths a month or about 115 deaths a day in that year and you can be sure the numbers are far greater today (June 2013) than then).  Cancer is a killer that has probably touched everyone in South Africa.  An aunt, sibling, parent, child, a friend or acquaintance.  It doesn’t just switch off someones life but does so in an agonising and torturous process of slowly progressing and debilitating illness and distress.  It effects all ages and all communities from the rich to the poor.  It probably effects poor communities disproportionately because some cancer is life-style related (tobacco use contributes to lung and other respiratory tract cancers) and gender related (female sexual promiscuity and widespread rape contribute to cervical cancers).  These behaviour patters are endemic in poorer communities.  You can find the 2000 cancer stats on the SA Medical Research Council web site  By way of comparison, road deaths in South Africa amounted to about 18 000 for 2010 (SA Against Drunk Driving estimate) which is less than half the acknowledged cancer deaths for 2000.

Nobody is talking about cutting research into road deaths yet funding for cancer research at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) comes to an end at the end of the year because of an SAMRC management decision, apparently based on interpretations of the facts that deaths from any particular sub-set of cancer does not warrant the expense of research, whereas AIDS is the record holder for disease related mortality (a whopping 133 000 in 2000).  But, we ask, aren’t many aids related deaths due to cancer arising from failure of the immune system?   We believe this to be so.

When South Africa was in denial about AIDS it was very popular to fudge the statistics for aids related deaths by attributing them to cancer or TB or whatever the ultimate cause of death was  It seems now we are fudging the statistics again.  It now seems that some are re-defining deaths from lung cancer as respiratory tract failure or such-like but not cancer, or death from ovarian cancer as death from disease of the ovaries, but not cancer.  Then, conveniently, these events are excluded from statistics on cancer.   It also seems that deaths from the various sub-sets of cancer (lung, bladder etc) are not regarded as ‘cancer’ per se but rather are viewed as discrete diseases unrelated to one another, thus rendering them statistically insignificant.

So what are the true statistics for cancer?  If you take the 2000 statistics for causes of death in SA, 133 000 deaths are attributed to AIDS and 42 000 deaths to cancer.  If you identify cancer deaths hidden under the AIDS banner as cancer deaths, you could probably argue that death from all types of cancer, aids related or not, were in the region of 142 000.  Deaths from all AIDS related diseases would remain at 133 000 (as they probably should) and deaths from AIDS related diseases other than cancer, might then have been only 33 000.  And then you could say that cancer was the leading cause of death, followed by AIDS, and so on. 

But you can only say that if you can trust the statistics on AIDS and cancer and on deaths in general. Unfortunately the politicians and bureaucrats have been fudging these definitions and numbers for so long (we believe largely to suite the politics of the day) that these statistics are so unreliable as to almost be useless.  So who knows what the actual statistics are?  We certainly don’t.

Why then is cancer research being axed if this is not based on reliable stats?  One theory put forward is that Professor Salim Karin, currently president of the SAMRC, is exercising a personal bias in favour of AIDS research, something he is particularly familiar with and generally favours and for which he can more readily obtain funding than for cancer research.  Is this taking the path of least resistance to the most funding?   It’s as good a theory as any and the Direct Democracy Forum (DDF) can’t think of any other rational motivation for the strategy.

How can this be a management policy of a South African para-statal and how does this advance the stated aims of the SAMRC viz.  To improve the nation’s health status and quality of life through relevant and excellent health research aimed at promoting equity and development?  By cutting cancer research SAMRC management are clearly saying that cancer research is irrelevant to the health of the nation.  How can that be?  142 000 or even 42 000 deaths in 2000 say this can’t be so.    Surely government cannot condone this?

Under a DDF administration there is no possibility that the cancer research will ever be cut.  If anything, research in science, technology and social sciences will increase, significantly.  If you do not clearly understand the nature of a problem how can you possibly find its solution?  Not only do the DDF have the political will to ensure South Africa’s relevance in the world’s scientific forums and the political will to fix South Africa’s health-care woes, the DDF will also have the fiscal means and the science & technology policies and the health-care policies with which to do so.

The buck stops at the ballot box