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While NHS services continue to struggle under the immense strain of hospitalised COVID-19 patients, a sinister side effect has been brewing. The pandemic’s impact on cancer “is nothing short of catastrophic,” says Dr Hans Kluge, European director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), who warned that deaths from bowel cancer are expected to rise by 15 per cent in the UK over the next five years.
Millions of people have been hit by delays to screenings, scans and treatments caused by lockdown restrictions brought in to control the virus as well as “the enormous strain on health systems of fighting COVID-19,” Dr Kluge says. This disruption, coupled with cancer drug shortages across Europe, is having a direct impact on the chances of a cure or survival for hundreds of thousands of patients.
The statistics make for grim reading. Early in the pandemic, one in three countries in Europe had partially or completely disrupted cancer services. The Kyrgyzstan National Center of Oncology was among the worst hit, with diagnoses plummeting by 90 per cent last April. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the number of cancers diagnosed during the first lockdown dropped by between 30 and 40 per cent.
“COVID-19 poses multiple threats,” says Dr Kluge. “One we cannot afford to ignore is an epidemic of cancer. Ensuring continuity of cancer care while fighting COVID-19 has been hugely challenging for countries across the WHO European Region, a continent that accounts for approximately one third of all reported COVID-19 cases and deaths to date – that is more than 750,000 lost lives.”
Barring urgent appointments and emergency treatment, the majority of hospital services were suspended in the first lockdown of 2020 as wards quickly became overwhelmed by the huge influx of coronavirus patients. Where appointments and operations were still scheduled to go ahead, many people feared catching the virus or putting pressure on the NHS – leading to a drop in non-COVID deaths in hospitals, and a rise in home deaths.
Dr Kluge’s comments echo those of cancer charity Macmillan, which has warned of cancer becoming ‘the Forgotten C’ throughout the crisis. In England alone, between March and August last year, 30,000 fewer people started their first cancer treatment compared to the year before, the charity states. It estimates that there are currently around 50,000 ‘missing diagnoses’ across the UK.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” says Dr Kluge. “In 2020, 4.8 million Europeans were diagnosed with cancer. That’s more than 13,000 people every day, 546 every hour, 9 every minute… This is our wake-up call, from grassroots to governments, to tackle cancer together.”
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