Even as cancer is set to become a major cause of morbidity and mortality in the coming decades, the relative shortage of medical oncologists in general, and subspecialists in particular, is worrying.

M. Vijay Kumar, Director of the State-run Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology, told The Hindu that there are hardly 10 institutes in the country that offer Medical Council of India (MCI)-approved speciality courses in oncology. Besides, the number of seats in these institutes is very low.

The intake (surgical and medical oncology) in these institutes, which was less than 200 till two years ago, has been revised by the MCI now.

“In Kidwai, the intake of super-speciality degree course in surgical oncology has been increased from two seats to eight and in medical oncology, it has been increased from two to six. However, this is not enough,” he said.

According to B.S. Ajaikumar, chairperson of HCG Cancer Care Network, there are only 2,000 oncologists in the country as against the requirement of nearly 6,000.

“Nearly 150 medical oncologists graduate from various institutes in the country annually. But this is not sufficient,” he said.

Demanding that the government declare cancer a notifiable disease, Dr. Kumar said: “As of now, we have no specific statistics on the demand and supply of oncologists in the country. If the disease is notified, it will be mandatory for all hospitals and medical practitioners to report every case they get. This will help in collating the exact incidence and death rate.”

He said that controlling the spread of the disease had become difficult as people reported late to hospitals. He pointed out that more than 80 per cent of new cases were detected only in an advanced stage.

There are 27 regional cancer centres and nearly 300 private hospitals where oncology services are provided in the country.

Early detection

“As early detection is vital in the management of the disease, screening at the local level is important. The main focus of the national cancer screening programme in 100 identified districts, of which five are in Karnataka (Tumkur, Kolar, Shimoga, Chikmagalur and Udupi), is early detection,” he explained.

Although the Health Ministry’s pilot project under the National Programme for Prevention and Control of Cancer, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Diseases and Stroke (NPCDCS) was announced in July 2010, it took off only recently in four of the five identified districts in the State. The shortage of specialists has also hit the programme.

‘Look for symptoms’

Ibrahim Nagnoor, senior specialist and head of the Department of Preventive Oncology at Kidwai, who is coordinating the screening programme in Tumkur and Kolar, said that health activists, paramedical staff and auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs) were being told to look for cancer symptoms among patients in their jurisdiction and refer them to the monthly screening camps.

“A team of doctors will screen the patients at the local camp and ask those diagnosed to come to Kidwai for further treatment. The next camp is in Kolar on February 15,” he added.