Cancer and heart services put at risk by coronavirus response

Sarah Newey
GP surgery in the UK - Anthony Devlin/PA 

Around half of countries worldwide have witnessed partial or complete disruption to health services for people with high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer since the coronavirus pandemic began, the World Health Organization has warned. 

A survey of 155 nations has shown that resources to tackle chronic illnesses, known as non-communicable diseases (NCDs), have been diverted as governments focus on containing Covid-19. 

Just over half of countries surveyed reported that health services for hypertension, or high blood pressure, have been hampered, while 49 per cent reported interruptions to diabetes treatment and 42 per cent said cancer services had been reduced. 

In the UK alone, Cancer Research estimates published this week suggest that around 2.4 million people are still waiting for cancer screening, treatment or tests due to disruptions to the NHS since mid March. 

“We all know that the impacts of Covid-19 extend well beyond the death and disease caused by the virus itself,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, told a virtual press briefing on Monday. 

“The pandemic has forced countries to make difficult choices about suspending some health services.”

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The WHO report added that a third of countries have seen disruptions to their cardiovascular emergency response, while 94 per cent said ministry of health staff working on NCDs had been partially or fully reassigned to support the pandemic . 

Dr Tedros said the findings were particularly concerning given that those with underlying health conditions are most at risk of serious outcomes after contracting the coronavirus.

“We already know that people living with NCDs are more vulnerable to becoming severely ill or dying from Covid-19. At the same time, many people living with NCDs are no longer able to access the medicines that they need.

“The Covid-19 response must therefore be inclusive of the health-care needs of people living with noncommunicable diseases,” he said. 

Last week the the WHO’s regional office in the Americas warned that the region is likely to be particularly hard hit due to a high prevalence of chronic illness

“One of the most concerning aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic is the disproportionate impact of the virus on people suffering from non communicable diseases (NCDs),” said Dr Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO).

“We have never seen such a deadly relationship between an infectious disease and NCDs. Some of the data is truly alarming, especially for our region where NCDs are pervasive.”  

She added that North and South America could see a “parallel pandemic of preventable deaths for those with NCDs” unless innovative measures to reduce disruption for primary health services were rapidly introduced.

At Monday's press conference, Dr Tedros also warned that tobacco companies are  continuing to “manipulate” people into using products - despite widespread evidence that smoking is a major cause of chronic illness. 

“Even during this global pandemic, where we know tobacco puts users at a higher risk of severe disease and death, the tobacco and nicotine industry persist with their dangerous marketing tactics that aim to attract new users,” he said. 

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