Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chewing qat, a slow way of committing suicide

The widespread habit of chewing ‘qat’, a mild drug, is to blame for the growing number of mouth cancers in Yemen, according to local NGO National Foundation to Support Cancer Patients. The Foundation said the heavy use of pesticides by farmers to grow the crop, cultivated in Yemen for over 500 years, was to blame for the proliferation of cancer cases.
According to Nadeem Mohammed Saeed, head of the state-funded National Oncology Centre (NOC) in the capital Sanaa, about 30 percent of the cancer patients he sees have mouth and gum cancers - which some studies link to `qat’ as well as the heavy use of a chewing tobacco known as ‘shamma’. “This is really a frightening figure and represents one of the world’s highest rates for mouth and gum cancer,” Saeed said.

Millions chew `qat’ in Yemen, mostly men, some estimate that 90% of them take part in the daily sessions. At the end of the workday, usually from about 3 or 4 pm, tight little bundles of  branches with the narcotic leafs are bought fresh, and sessions of talking and chewing begin, which can last hours. It's during qat sessions that politics are shapen and business deals are done. An estimated 70 percent of households have at least one person that uses `qat’, which represents a huge and lucrative business for growers. Cultivating the shrub takes up more than 50 percent of arid Yemen’s arable land and consumes 65 percent of its precious groundwater, according Adel al-Shujaa, head of the Combating `Qat’ Damage Association, a local NGO.
The crop is not a hard-currency earner. It is officially banned in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and with Yemen’s `qat’ consumption the highest in the region, production is mostly for local use.

  The 56-bed NOC, the only specialist oncology hospital in Yemen, is unable to cope with the growing number of people diagnosed with cancer. "We don't have enough beds to accommodate hundreds of cancer patients coming from all across the nation,” said Jamal al-Azab, a doctor at the centre. NOC has a waiting list of 300 patients, and "too many patients stop frequenting the centre after they fail to find unoccupied beds," he added.
"The centre's monthly funding is enough for the treatment of 200 cases, but we receive some 400-450 cases per month," said Saeed. Saeed’s deputy, Munif Ahmad Saleh, noted that the World Health Organization recommends there should be one oncology centre for one million people, "but in Yemen we have only one centre for 23 million people".

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