The big C and a publicity campaign

This week in health: how (not) to market cervical cancer, Neuralink’s brain chip implant in humans and all about Interim Budget’s allocations to healthcare.

Updated - February 07, 2024 09:25 am IST

Published - February 06, 2024 02:29 pm IST

Image used for illustration purpose only.

Image used for illustration purpose only. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto 

(In the weekly Health Matters newsletter, Ramya Kannan writes about getting to good health, and staying thereYou can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox.)

This week in health news was crowned by the bizarre, over the weekend. In what could qualify as an offensive, insensitive stunt, small-time celebrity, an actor and model Poonam Pandey’s social media handle announced that she had died of cervical cancer. Yes, cervical cancer can kill, but no, cervical cancer is rarely a galloping cancer, taking even years to manifest as symptoms. Given that the actor’s social media profile had been posting pictures from her social engagements just a couple of days ago, naturally, the less gullible amongst us, immediately smelt a rat. We were not surprised when the next day, the actor released another video claiming the whole thing had been done with a view to improve awareness on cervical cancer. As a senior journalist pointed out: “I had no idea who Poonam Pandey was, before this.” Whether she raised awareness on cancer, or not, her out-of-the-blue publicity stunt certainly notched up the number of followers on her social media handles. 

The post did not link to any research or verified information on cervical cancer, or recommend sites or information on causes, symptoms and treatment options. With cervical cancer awareness month being observed end January, there was indeed plenty of information available in the public domain on cervical cancer. The second-most common cancer detected in women aged between 35 and 44 is cervical cancer, experts said. They also added that cervical cancer is preventable since “effective ways of screening for precancerous stages and preventing the disease by vaccinating girls [against the Human Papillomavirus infection] are possible, and if detected in the pre-cancerous stages, it is completely curable. Also, researchers said, early immunotherapy may be the most effective treatment for cervical cancer. Novel therapeutic approaches for cervical cancer, include combinations of immunotherapy and targeted agents, they added. Immunotherapy aims to harness the power of the immune system to help eradicate cancer cells. It has a different side effect profile to traditional chemotherapy and may be better tolerated, noted one of the researchers.

It’s very important to communicate the right messages, on cancer, or any other public health crisis, and to be sensitive while doing so. Talking of a death that did not happen without a care of how it would affect the women living with cervical cancer, is plain irresponsible. What resulted, therefore, was further stigmatisation of cervical cancer, and the perpetuation of existing and newer myths around the condition. Some X users in India stigmatised cervical cancer patients after Poonam Pandey’s misadventure, linking cervical cancer to sex work without any evidence, or using the condition to shame those with active sex lives. Thanks, entirely to what is clearly a publicity stunt. 

On the other side of the spectrum, as it were, was the news that King Charles III, newly crowned king of England, had been diagnosed with cancer. King Charles III has been diagnosed with a form of cancer and has begun treatment, Buckingham Palace said on February 5. Less than 18 months into his reign, the 75-year-old monarch will suspend public duties but will continue with state business, and won’t be handing over his constitutional roles as head of state. The palace didn’t say what form of cancer the king had, but said it was not related to his recent treatment for a benign prostate condition. The palace added that the king “has chosen to share his diagnosis to prevent speculation and in the hope it may assist public understanding for all those around the world who are affected by cancer.”

With February 4 being observed as Cancer Day, there was plenty of information out there, to capture the larger picture and recommend local measures to handle the issue. The WHO reported that new cancer cases will soar by 77% by 2050, urging immediate action by member states to handle the emerging situation. The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) cited tobacco, alcohol, obesity and air pollution as key factors in the estimated rise. “Over 35 million new cancer cases are predicted in 2050”, a statement said.

We also provided the national perspective: India recorded over 14 lakh cancer cases in 2022. In 2022, India witnessed a surge in cancer cases, with over 14 lakh diagnoses and over nine lakh deaths, as per a report from The Global Cancer Observatory, a division of the WHO. The data revealed that 10.6% of India’s population faces the risk of developing cancer before the age of 75, with a mortality rate of 7.2%. Gender-specific trends revealed that the most prevalent cancers among males include lip and oral cavity, followed by lung, oesophagus, colorectum and stomach. Meanwhile, the most common female cancers are breast, cervical cancer, ovary, lip, oral cavity, and colorectum, it recorded.

And the local perspective: Preventive oncology clinics to come up in all Kerala districts. We cannot overemphasise the case for preventive oncology, given the alarming statistics and projections on increasing numbers. Other States too will do well to follow up on this.

Moving from one C to another: Children, we encountered bizarre again, last week. Sahana Venugopal writes about the comment section from hell which detailed how Instagram users spewed hatred at children with disabilities. Parents and caretakers cannot handle the flood of abusive Instagram comments that Meta leaves up, ultimately failing children with disabilities, medical conditions, or visible differences. Given that around one billion people, who make up approximately 15% of the global population, live with disabilities and form the world’s largest minority, according to the WHO, it is time social media companies gave it their full attention. Talking about disability should help shed stigma, not put people off from talking about children or adults with disabilities. 

At least some countries are taking the social media companies to task. Among the most shared information last week was news that Meta, TikTok, and other social media CEOs would testify before a Senate committee on child exploitation. On January 31, the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, X and other social media companies testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about child exploitation on their platforms, as lawmakers, families and advocates are growing increasingly concerned about the effects of social media on young people’s lives. While Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a veteran of congressional hearings since his first one over the Cambridge Analytica privacy debacle in 2018, it will only be the second time for TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew and the first for Linda Yaccarino, the CEO of X. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel and Discord CEO Jason Citron are also scheduled to testify. “We understand that they are companies and they have to make profit. But when you’re faced with really important safety and privacy decisions, the revenue in the bottom line should not be the first factor that these companies are considering,” said Zamaan Qureshi, co-chair of Design It For Us, a youth-led coalition advocating for safer social media.

I wrote, here, on a Harvard paper on the impact of excessive heat events on children, pregnant women and the foetus: A touch of sun. The first of a series, this working paper from the Early Childhood Scientific Council on Equity and the Environment, Harvard University, (Extreme Heat Affects Early Childhood Development and Health: Working Paper No. 1., 2023) explores how extreme heat can affect young children’s biological systems and disrupt development, as well as the many ways it can amplify the effects of systemic inequities. For more information on how heat actually impacts on children, do hit on the link above.

There was much jubilation after the U.K. declared its intent to ban vapes, and control e-cigarettes aimed at children. It is currently illegal to sell vapes or tobacco to children under 18 in the U.K., but officials say that youth vaping has tripled in the past three years, and that cheap, colourful disposable vapes are a “key driver.” As well as banning disposable vapes, the government says it will “restrict flavours which are specifically marketed at children” and ensure that manufacturers put vapes in “less visually appealing packaging.” The British government also said it will push on with a plan announced last year to gradually raise the minimum age to buy cigarettes, so that no one born after Jan. 1, 2009 can ever legally buy them.

While it was a Vote on account or an interim budget, there was no doubt discussion in the country about health allocations under it. While the Indian Medical Association sought investment in public sector hospitalsBindu Shajan Perapaddan reported that the Interim Budget 2024 would provide ASHA, Anganwadi workers and helpers health cover under the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana. An excellent move one that naturally attracted plaudits from the WHO. The international body also praised the government for proposals to upgrade hospital infrastructure, increase the number of medical colleges, expand vaccine programme and platforms; the medical device industry, however, says the Budget falls short, given rising import bills. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the government would focus on vaccination against cervical cancer, but let’s await further clarification on this move. Suneeta Reddy, managing director, of Apollo Hospitals Group wrote this piece, highlighting the current budgetary allocations, and pointing out the decadal advancements in health care in the country: A rising tide lifts all boats.

R. Prasad writes about how a study showed that the India-made typhoid vaccine efficacy lasts for four years. A phase-3 trial in children aged between nine months and 12 years carried out in Malawi, Africa, which is a typhoid fever-endemic setting, has shown that the efficacy of the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech’s conjugate typhoid toxoid vaccine — Typbar — lasts for at least four years. The efficacy of the vaccine was seen in children of all age groups studied. Children were vaccinated with a single dose of the vaccine during the period of February to September 2018. This is the first randomised, controlled, double-blind trial that has been undertaken to study the long-term efficacy of a single dose of the typhoid vaccine in a typhoid fever-endemic setting in children aged nine to 12 years.

Siddharth Kumar Singh reports on how the ISCR advocates increased participation in clinical trials. The ISCR, as an organisation, is exploring avenues to expedite the delivery of drugs to patients and incorporate clinical trials into the care process. Seema Pai, Secretary of ISCR, acknowledged that while awareness has increased, there is significant room for improvement in India’s participation in clinical trials.

Meanwhile, here is more on Kerala’s State policy on rare diseasesA. S. Jayanth quotes government sources to record, that a brainstorming session involving experts has been planned for the coming weeks, where a draft policy is expected to be prepared. The policy will be finalised and declared by February 29, to mark Rare Disease Day. The WHO defines a rare disease as a “debilitating life-long disease or disorder with a prevalence of 1 or less, per 1,000 population.” Different countries have their own definitions considering their specific requirements, the nature of the population, and healthcare resources. A registry of rare diseases patients across the country is yet to be prepared.

The world is eager to follow the Neuralink implant story, but scant details are available, says the story in our tailpiece for the week. In a Monday post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Musk said that the patient received the implant the day prior and was “recovering well”. He added that “initial results show promising neuron spike detection”. The billionaire, who co-founded Neuralink, did not provide additional details about the patient. When Neuralink announced in September that it would begin recruiting people, the company said it was searching for individuals with quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

From the Health page

Also read, when you have a moment:        

Indian national jailed for 9 years over $2.8 million health care fraud.           

IRDAI mandates AYUSH options in health covers from April 1. 

Apurva Chandra appointed Health Secretary.

For regional content this past week, look at the following links:

Andhra Pradesh

IMA Andhra Pradesh chapter recalls the services of doctors who died during the pandemic on COVID Martyrs’ Day.

Ayushman Bharat cards should be issued to people immediately, demands BJP.     


65,000 ‘ghost patients’ underwent tests at Mohalla clinics in Delhi last year: Anti-Corruption Bureau

L-G flags ‘pathetic state’ of hospitals; remove bureaucrats, says Arvind Kejriwal.


Satyasundar Barik reports on the Odisha Government laying down stringent conditions to meet shortage of doctors.


Of nearly 1,600 doctors who succumbed to COVID in India, 92 were from Karnataka.

Second KFD death reported in Karnataka this year; Health Department holds meeting.

11 KFD cases reported in Shivamogga, increasing total active cases in Karnataka to 37.     

Afshan Yasmeen reports:Karnataka to start doorstep screening of oral and breast cancers along with other NCDs under ‘Gruha Arogya’.


C. Maya reports: Public hospitals in Kerala scramble for funds for local drug purchase as KASP overdue payments mount.

Ormathoni to be launched for a dementia-friendly Kerala.

Approval for applications received under Sruthitharangam scheme in Kerala.          

Kerala Health Minister urges more hospitals to participate in antimicrobial resistance surveillance network.

Health Minister inaugurates Ayurveda hospital in Kerala’s Kuttanad.          


FDA busts bogus medicine racket; seizes 21,600 ‘antibiotic’ tablets at Nagpur hospital.

Tamil Nadu

T.N. government constitutes committee to look into demands of government doctors.

1,127 vacant doctor posts in 20 HUDs will be up for counselling on February 3 and 4: Health Minister.

Tamil Nadu nurses wear badges to work over unmet demands.

6,939 patients on waitlist for organs in T.N.: Health Minister.

C. Palanivel Rajan writes: Madurai PHCS in dire need of more funds, manpower.

Counselling for 1,021 doctors for 20 health unit districts in Tamil Nadu complete: Health Minister Ma. Subramanian.           


Scepticism in Telangana as government plans new medical colleges.

As always, do put us on your radar, as we bring more health content your way. Get more of The Hindu’s health coverage here

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