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23 Jul, 2009 06:01

Vast distances hampering Russians’ fight against cancer

Russia’s immense size means that patients suffering from cancer, especially children, may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away from specialized treatment centers.

Roma, residing in Moscow for treatment, made the candle for his 12th birthday himself. He is sad that his fiancée Lisa won’t be there to see it. Lisa is back in his hometown of Voronezh, while the boy is undergoing medical treatment in Moscow.

Roma was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago. Intensive chemotherapy followed, but then there he had a relapse which affected his nervous system. Roma then headed to Moscow for a bone marrow transplant. The surgery was successful.

“My son was the only patient from Voronezh in this hospital. There are no quotas for our city this year. And it was only after the relapse that the local authorities wrote a petition, and we were sent to Moscow.”

In Russia there are quotas for the number of patients who can receive free, state of the art hospital care. The number varies from region to region and from year to year. The quotas can be changed, but if you live far from the capital, your chances are slim.

The national oncology center in the south of Moscow is the biggest in Russia, though it can only hold 150 cancer patients at a time. Even if parents are lucky to get a place for their child there, another problem arises. For Roma the distance to this hospital from Voronezh is approximately 500 kilometers. However, residents of Chita seeking medical care have to travel 6500 km, while people from Vladivostok have to travel a staggering 9000 kilometers. It is these distances which often work against people like Roma receiving successful treatment.

Aleksandr Kompaniets from the Siberian city of Seversk fought hard for his son’s life. He trusted local doctors and thought they were no worse than those in Moscow. The doctors might have been good, but they were too slow in their efforts:

“The boy needed his cancer-affected bone to be replaced with prostheses. Doctors started preparing us for the surgery, but this preparation dragged on for months,” Aleksandr explained.

“At first we were waiting for the money to be allocated, then we were told that no prostheses can be provided, because we had to wait for the tender with the suppliers. As a result the surgery took place in May instead of February.”

The boy waited for his operation patiently, but the tumor didn’t. Three months before the boy's death, blood tests revealed that in addition to the deadly cancer, he also had HIV. His parents were not surprised, since the boy had had so many blood tests and transfusions in different hospitals.

The country’s biggest charity for children with cancer says the medical system itself needs to be cured.

“The idea of quotas isn’t bad, but it lacks efficiency,” Ekaterina Chistyakova, a spokeswoman for the charity said.

“Currently in Russia only 10% to 20% of cancer patients can receive operations. For others there are simply not enough places in hospitals. Also, parents lack information. They often desperately look for financial help and they don’t know that they can receive it for free from the state,” she added.

Roma is one of the lucky few, whose treatment was completely funded by the state. The “Grant Life!” charity covered his mother’s stay in Moscow as she shared a flat with other patients’ relatives.

The mothers of these boys say they could never afford the costly, $400 a day treatment on their own. Sadly, in a huge country where 14 out of the 17 children’s oncology centers are in situated in Moscow, only by coming to the capital are parents sure that their loved ones can beat the disease.