Press Release

Increasing SA’s Blood Cancer Survival Rate Starts with the State Healthcare System

SA faces the reality of 4,000 people dying from blood cancer every year. Dr Sharlene Parasnath, Head of the Department of Clinical Haematology and Stem Cell Transplant Unit at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital believes this is largely due to the quality of care in the state healthcare system.

17/06/2024

Cape Town, 18 June 2024 – While cancer survivors are increasing in countries like the United States, South Africa faces a different reality, with 4,000 people dying from blood cancer every year. Dr Sharlene Parasnath, Head of the Department of Clinical Haematology and Stem Cell Transplant Unit at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital and DKMS Africa board member, believes that this discrepancy is largely due to the quality of care provided to patients who rely on the state healthcare system.

Counting the costs

She explains that South Africa’s state sector relies predominantly on conventional chemotherapy to treat patients as opposed to newer targeted immunotherapies. “These may be accessible to some patients in the private sector and standard care in developed countries but are out of reach for public healthcare due to their unaffordability. Countries that use more targeted therapies not only improve overall survival but also decrease the undesirable adverse effects of cancer treatments. These therapies may be given with chemotherapy or on their own and work by attacking specific genetic mutations in cancer cells. Examples include monoclonal antibodies (MABs) and Bispecific T cell engagers (BiTES), which mimic the immune system to destroy cancer cells. There are also tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) which block the signals that promote cancer cell growth.”

“The prohibitive costs of these treatments are why stem cell transplants are being encouraged in South Africa since they offer those with blood cancers a chance of a cure,” points out Dr Parasnath. “However, this approach comes with challenges. For instance, the state will not pay for a transplant from an unrelated donor, despite two thirds of patients in need of a transplant being unable to find a suitable donor from within their family.”

Fewer nurses, fewer transplants

“Human resource constraints, particularly the shortage of specialist nurses, is another factor hindering more stem cell transplants from being carried out,” she notes. “Currently, there is no formalised training for nurses in haematology in South Africa. So, what tends to happen is that the majority of blood cancer patients end up being cared for either by oncology-trained nurses or registered general nurses with limited practical education and training in the kind of care they require. Important aspects of nursing which can improve patient outcomes include dietary restrictions, visitor guidelines, decreasing bleeding risk, infection control and early detection of potential complications such as graft rejection, graft vs. host disease and veno-occlusive disease that can develop following a stem cell transplant.”

Referring to an article in the South African Medical Journal titled Haematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation in South Africa: Current limitations and future perspectives, Dr Parasnath adds that lack of staff ultimately leads to implicit rationing of healthcare, thereby limiting access to this life-changing medical procedure.

Mental health is health

She stresses that human resource constraints in terms of mental health support is also detrimental to patients with blood cancers. “Unfortunately, this tends to be the case both in the public and private sectors, as one out of three people diagnosed with cancer ends up struggling with a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression as well, yet less than 10% of patients are referred to seek help. The South African Society of Psychiatrists has even warned that if left untreated or undiagnosed, this could impact the patient’s ability to function on a daily basis, including undergoing treatment.”

Dr Parasnath emphasises another glaring gap in mental health support. “NGOs offer on-site social workers for hospitalised children with blood cancer, but adults, especially those who are not members of medical aid schemes, often have no options available to them. Not only do they grapple with the emotional toll of their diagnosis and treatment side effects, but this is further complicated by anxieties around their finances and the wellbeing of their children.”

The Cancer Association of South Africa’s (CANSA) Fact Sheet on Cancer and Mental Health highlights that there remains a huge unmet need for mental health in cancer care, calling for more effective clinical integration of relevant services, which must be informed by patient choice and clinical need, and accessible throughout the patient's whole cancer journey. It also stresses the need for measurement of patient quality of life as a marker of treatment effectiveness.

“The Department of Health must recognise clinical haematology as a discipline in its own right with its own unique needs. For too long, it has had to feed off of the limited oncology budget. But if we are to up the blood cancer survival rate, funding must be provided for necessities such as more modern treatments, unrelated stem cell transplantation and formalised training of nurses,” says Dr Parasnath.

She also urges South Africans to increase the pool of available stem cell donors either by registering themselves or supporting organisations like DKMS Africa which connects patients with potential matches by providing access to a global registry of over 12 million donors. Financial donations directly address two critical needs: funding the registration of new donors and assisting patients facing financial challenges as a result of the transplant process.”

“With focused efforts, South Africa can join the global trend of increasing blood cancer survival rates, offering a brighter future for patients and their families,” concludes Dr Parasnath.

To register visit https://www.dkms-africa.org/register-now or for more information, contact DKMS Africa on 0800 12 10 82.

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