November 3, 2003
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After much deliberation within the Health Ministry it has finally been agreed that two anti-cancer caesium units, which are lying idle at the moment, will be pressed into service. Arrangements are now being made by the Georgetown Hospital and the Ministry of Health for technicians to come and activate the two units. This assurance was contained in a statement issued last week by the Georgetown Hospital Corporation (GPHC) and comes in the wake of the consternation evoked due to the fact that four years after the machines were purchased they had not yet been activated. It is most extraordinary that as the end of 2003 approaches the Health Ministry is again trying to assure the public that the units will be activated. Wasn’t that the original intention when they were first acquired? Yet it has taken more than four years, much lamentation by the Central Islamic Organisation of Guyana (CIOG), which was instrumental in the donation, of one of the machines, and much ‘toing and froing’ by the Ministry of Health. Can there be any confidence now that these machines will be up and running anytime soon?
As we said in last week’s editorial, there was no excuse for the Health Ministry’s failure to put the units into service particularly when women continue to die from cervical cancer and others have to seek expensive treatment overseas to stay alive.
In a letter to this newspaper last week in response to the editorial, Education Minister Jeffrey, who was the Health Minister at the time of the donation of the two units, explained his input in the matter. The units were acquired in 1999 and he was switched from the health portfolio in 2001. He pointed out that on his assumption of office in 1997 he set about addressing the issue of the development of a national cancer programme in 1998. A workshop was held and several experts were recruited. These efforts culminated in the approval by Cabinet in 1999 of the construction of a cancer centre which would contain a radiation bunker to house radiotherapy equipment such as the caesium units. His point was that preparations for a radiation-proof bunker were being made “long before the donation” of the caesium units. This statement doesn’t lessen concern over the unbelievable sloth with which successive PPP/C health ministries addressed the issue of the caesium units moreso since by the minister’s own admission plans for such a radiation-proof bunker had been in the works. Even if new protocols were introduced for the purchasers of the equipment because of lawsuits over radiation poisoning, there is no reason why the bunker should not have been completed a long time ago and in advance of the arrival of the units which Minister Jeffrey suggested had not arrived by the time he left office in 2001.
While we have heard from Minister Jeffrey there has been silence from the current Minister of Health Dr Ramsammy on why the units were left to idle over the last two and a half years. During this period, not only was the bunker not finished but considerable doubt was cast over whether the units would be used at all. This was evidenced by the minister’s recent statement which listed the use of the caesium units as only one of several options. No wonder the CIOG was left in a state of disquiet. It said it had expected that the units would be activated four months after purchase not four years. The most definitive statement that the units would be used came only last week along with the assurance that all of the components for the two units were intact.
There is no way that life-saving equipment should be solicited and accepted from a donor and the enabling facilities - even if technically challenging - not built for four years. Such an occurrence betrays several things: incompetence, poor execution, lack of follow through and unaccountability. It also says very little for continuity between health ministries of different governments and smooth transitions.
President Jagdeo, having been President through this entire fiasco, needs to review this particular incident to determine why his ministers failed to deliver results. It is now left to be seen how quickly - and safely - the units can be activated. Their moth-balling has raised safety issues with a physicist’s report earlier this year warning that precautions should be taken to counter any possible leakage of radiation from the units. Adequate measures should be taken to ensure that there is no risk to the health of the staff operating near to the units. Hopefully, these units will begin to save lives very soon.