The Emergence of the Northeast as India’s Cancer Capital

by Aditya Kumar

A Prominent Villain in the Healthcare Tragedy: Widespread Tobacco Use in Northeast India

In the picturesque landscapes of Northeast India, a silent tragedy is unfolding. The region is witnessing an alarming rise in cancer cases, painting a dark shadow over its well-being. According to a report titled “NER Cancer Pattern and Trend”, new cancer cases in the Northeast Region (NER) are projected to surge to 57,131 by 2025, up from 50,317 in 2020. This crisis is a complex mix of lifestyle choices and deficiencies in healthcare infrastructure, demanding immediate attention and action.

The Northeast region of India has long been known for its rich cultural diversity and breathtaking landscapes. However, it has also gained an unfortunate reputation as the “Cancer Capital” of the country. A report by the Cancer Registry of India in 2018 highlighted this issue, and sadly, the situation has only worsened since then. The National Cancer Registry Programme reveals that while the national average for cancer diagnoses in India is 2.45 percent, Manipur has seen a staggering surge of 6.48 percent in incidence. This increase, following a 3.71 percent rise in 2021, underlines the severity of the problem. Similar alarming figures exist in other northeastern states like Sikkim, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh. These numbers represent the suffering of our fellow citizens and must not be ignored.

One of the prominent villains in this healthcare tragedy is the widespread use of tobacco, both in smoked and smokeless forms, in the northeastern region. Shockingly, a study conducted by the Indian Journal of Medical Research revealed that smoking alone accounts for 57 percent of all malignancies in men and 28 percent in women in this area. These statistics should shock the entire nation and prompt immediate and comprehensive tobacco control measures.

Compounding this grim outlook is the fact that the cancer rates in the northeastern states are significantly lower than the national average. This can be attributed to a lack of healthcare institutions that offer cancer services. It is heartbreaking to think that those in need of care are being let down by a system that should be there to support them.

While the state governments in the Northeast have taken some steps to address the healthcare crisis, such as the construction of a 200-bed super-specialty cancer hospital and the introduction of advanced diagnostic technology like the PET-CT scan machine, it is clear that these efforts alone may not be sufficient to tackle the challenges faced by the region.

Additionally, data from the Health Ministry’s Health Mitra Cancer Patient Fund (HMCPF) reveals a fluctuating number of beneficiaries under the scheme, raising questions about the consistency and effectiveness of these support mechanisms. In 2018-19, there were 1,773 patients availing financial assistance, but this number dropped to just 63 patients in 2022-23. These numbers question the effectiveness of the schemes and highlight the need for the central government to step in and address this growing crisis.

The central government must allocate a significant sum of money to improve the healthcare system in the northeastern states. The absence of a State/UT-wise allocation of funds under the Umbrella Scheme of Ayushman Bharat is a critical issue. Without regional allocation, patients from this region may not receive equitable access to financial assistance, despite the increasing cancer cases. Additionally, the government must enforce a comprehensive National Tobacco Control Program, with a particular focus on northeast India, to combat the detrimental impact of tobacco on cancer rates.

Furthermore, the central government should prioritize the education and placement of medical specialists in the northeastern states to improve early cancer identification and basic care. Establishing cancer OPD units in every hospital would be a significant step toward achieving this goal. Collaborating with the northeastern states to educate the population about cancer prevention, early detection, and the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle is also crucial.

The Northeastern states deserve a better healthcare system capable of adequately addressing the growing cancer issue. The absence of specific data for the region hinders targeted intervention, while the lack of region-specific strategies overlooks the remote and underserved areas of the region. Immediate action is necessary and requires a comprehensive approach that includes increased research, improved healthcare infrastructure, public awareness campaigns, community-based initiatives, financial assistance for patients, training of medical professionals, and development of state-specific cancer control plans. International collaboration to share resources and knowledge can also play a significant role in reducing the burden of cancer and saving lives in the region.

The time for action is now, and it is our collective duty not to shy away from it. Addressing the rising cancer issues in Northeast India requires a multifaceted approach that involves all stakeholders – government, healthcare professionals, civil society, and individuals. Together, we can make a difference and bring hope to the people of Northeast India.

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