Proton-beam to treat cancer in the Phl

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

In what could be the most ambitious project to advance the treatment of cancer in the Philippines, Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Teodoro Herbosa announced his determination to push the setting up here of the first-ever proton beam radiation therapy for cancer-stricken patients. Other than the existing chemotherapy, Herbosa bared about the on-going discussions at the DOH on the possibility “to bring in proton beam therapy” as an option of treatment for Filipinos to fight cancer.

Speaking in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum last Wednesday, Herbosa disclosed that the proton beam is a type of radiation therapy – a treatment that uses high-powered energy that precisely delivers a beam of protons to disrupt and destroy tumor cells. A medical doctor by profession, Herbosa explained the proton therapy can be effective in treating cancers that have not spread (not metastatic) and tumors that are in or near critical areas such as the brain, heart and lungs.

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), proton beam therapy may deliver up to 60 percent less radiation to healthy tissue around the target site, while delivering a higher dose to the tumor itself. Radiation oncology and chemotherapy are both effective cancer treatments though.

In radiation oncology, treatment is localized as it targets only the affected area of the body, and therefore, tends to have fewer side effects. If the disease is spreading rapidly, chemotherapy will be the most likely approach.

Herbosa, however, conceded “it is very expensive” to build one. He noted there are currently 89 of such units of proton beam radiation as therapy for specific cancer ailments being used in the United States (US), Japan and Singapore, to name some of these countries.

“I want us to put up the 90th (unit) for our own proton beam radiation,” the DOH Secretary declared.

For now though, Herbosa cited, he is only too hopeful to see soon the rise of the 20-storey Philippine Cancer Center (PCC) that already had groundbreaking last month. Although it will take time for its completion, Herbosa explained the first four floors could be made operational already before the end of term of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (PBBM). The PCC is being put up beside the Lung Center of the Philippines along East Avenue in Quezon City.

Herbosa believes the best campaign to fight such deadly ailments like cancer is prevention and early detection so that there can be early treatment to better control the spread of cancer. According to the DOH Secretary, the top three “killer” cancer ailments in the Philippines are, namely in this order, lung, breast and cervix cancers.

These statistics not only highlight the scale of the problem but also emphasize the urgent need for comprehensive strategies to address its prevalence and impact on Filipino women. Cancer is a dreaded disease that claims the lives of Filipinas daily. Beyond statistics, these women could be someone’s mom, wife, daughter, or sister.

In the specific case of cervical cancer, Herbosa explained, this is preventable through Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine and screening. However, Herbosa clarified that HPV is considered “optional vaccine” as far as the current status of priority vaccines under the DOH list. “And because it’s optional, we do not buy all (HPV vaccines) and we let the private sector cover for them,” he pointed out.

The P350-billion allocation of the DOH under the 2024 General Appropriations Act (GAA), Herbosa cited, is being supported by government revenues from the so-called “sin taxes” collected from cigarette and alcoholic products. “It is also called as cancer tax,” Herbosa jokingly quipped.

“But I’d like to spend the GAA money for cancer prevention, early detection, and for early treatment,” Herbosa stressed. “We buy them (HPV) through your taxes, but we cannot cover all. But I want more budget. I want all girls whether poor or middle class from age of puberty to be given this vaccine,” he added. From official statistics, he noted, the free HPV shots were only being given to 2.7 million pre-puberty Filipina girls coming from the 5th class income group, or the very poor families.

To achieve a 95 percent “herd immunity,” Herbosa argued, all these young girls are susceptible to cervical cancer, especially those in the pubertal age. Before they engage in sex, they must get HPV. Herbosa cited as example in having his three young daughters got vaccinated already with HPV.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), elimination of cervical cancer as a public health issue is possible by 2030 as long as we achieve the following targets: 90% of girls must be fully vaccinated against HPV by 15 years old; 70% of women must be screened twice within 5 to 10 years, and 90% of women with pre-cancer are treated and 90% of women with invasive cancer are managed. Herbosa supports the principle that prevention through vaccination is crucial in this goal.

While thousands of parents rely on government school-based HPV vaccine programs to have their children protected from cervical cancer, a decrease in government spending for the HPV immunization program would mean lesser vaccine coverage and could potentially put thousands of young girls at risk of developing cervical cancer in the future. “My own feeling is we should be more future thinking,” Herbosa pointed out.

The DOH Secretary welcomed a proposed House Bill filed by BHW party list representative Natasha Co to expand the government’s HPV program to include all female children from both public and private schools as well as out-of-school target age.

As the Board chairman of the National Integrated Cancer Control Act (NICCA) under Republic Act 11215, Herbosa vowed “to ask for more money” from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to fund the HPV program. Initially, the DOH Secretary wants the NICCA targets to set up 29 cancer radiation centers in various parts of the country in consultation with the International Applied Ethics and Technology Association (IAETA).

And in the near future, the DOH chief looks forward to the procurement soon of the country’s first “very modern” proton beam radiation for cancer treatment in our country.

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