Expert notes rise of cancer in Pacific
Spending is down near former nuclear test sites with a high rate of disease
SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands » Nearly half a century after Pacific nuclear testing, increasing numbers of cancer patients are appearing on Pacific islands even as U.S. government support for health care steadily declines, according to a Hawaii cancer expert.
Dr. Neal Palafox of the University of Hawaii's John A. Burns School of Medicine notes that while the U.S. is spending billions of dollars a month on the war in Iraq, health budgets in its former and current Pacific island territories decrease.
Palafox, with the Comprehensive Cancer Control Program and the Cancer Consortium of the Pacific Islands, spoke at a public lecture in Saipan this week. The programs are aimed at helping Pacific islands create a medical coalition so they can get more U.S. medical grants, but Palafox said Pacific communities also have to address on their own the issue of increased cancer.
He said declines in U.S. funding affect not only Hawaii but the Northern Marianas, Guam, Palau and the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. conducted above-ground nuclear testing from 1946 to 1958. The 67 thermonuclear tests conducted on different atolls of the Marshalls amounted to 7,200 Hiroshima bombs, he said -- "an average of more than 1.6 Hiroshima bombs per day for the 12-year nuclear test program."
According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2004 there were 530 excess cancers, mostly from northern atolls and all over the now-independent Marshall Islands, he said.
Too often, cancer patients don't know they have the disease, due to lack of detection facilities, he said. "It's hard to track cancer in the Pacific because data is not available.
In the Northern Marianas, a U.S. territory, the local health department recorded 146 cases of breast cancer from 1993 to 2002, and 71 cervical cancer cases during the period.
Palafox said there could be more cases that were not detected, especially of oral cancer, which is associated with the practice of chewing betel nut. The betel nut is usually mixed with tobacco, lime and pepper leaf.
Palafox said only a small fraction of cancer cases in the Pacific are hereditary, with the majority induced by lifestyle and environment.
He said studies show tobacco use among teenagers in the Northern Marianas is double the U.S. rate, and second-highest in the world.
Yet, in 2004 the U.S. spent $866 per person for health care in the Northern Marianas, compared with $5,500 for each American on the mainland, he said.
On the island of Kosrae, the U.S. spends $151 per patient, $143 in Pohnpei, $128 in the Marshalls, $92 in Chuuk, $369 in American Samoa, and just over $500 in Guam, he said.