By Sher Bano*
Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) is among Pakistan’s highly reputed Research and Development (R&D) organizations. Over the years, it has significantly contributed towards sustainable socio-economic development. Furthermore, along with its substantial contribution to overcome the ever increasing regional security threats, it remains the torchbearer for guaranteeing sustainable development in all spheres of life. The use of nuclear technology in the health sector has remained one of the top priorities of the PAEC. Pakistan, being an underdeveloped country has been facing various hurdles in efficient cancer care in the past due to the lack of training facilities, shortage of manpower, unawareness, absence of infrastructure, and low spending on cancer treatment and prevention. In this regard, PAEC has played a fundamental role in overcoming such obstacles with the establishment of various medical centers and by providing state of the art diagnostic and treatment. These facilities are available either at the subsidized rates or are completely free of cost for the general public.
PAEC has established 18 Atomic Energy Commission’s Cancer Hospitals (AECHs) to date in four provinces that are providing diagnostic and treatment facilities whereas the 19th hospital is under construction in Gilgit. Since the treatment of cancer is very expensive and the general public cannot afford such facilities, PAEC has been providing facilities at discounted rates or completely free of cost to nearly 85% of the cancer patients.
In addition to these, the construction of multiple Cancer Patients Welfare Societies and Pharmacies, mobile breast care clinics, Pakistan’s registration in WHO/IAEA PACT (Program of Action for Cancer Therapy) are some of the other milestones that have been accomplished by PAEC. In the ongoing global pandemic of COVID-19, these hospitals helped the government in fulfilling the needs of patients affected by Corona besides providing therapeutic and diagnostic facilities to cancer patients. All PAEC hospitals continued the treatment of the cancer patients during the days of pandemic when even the tertiary care hospitals had to temporarily suspend these facilities.
These remained the last ones to close down the OPDs. Pakistan has received COVID-19 testing equipment worth 100,000 Euros from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on special request of PAEC. These include; BSL (Biohazard Safety Level) level-3 cabinets, ‘Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction’ (RT-PCR), and testing kits along with paraphernalia in order to build corona testing labs. PAEC Chairman Mr. Muhammad Naeem even sent DG IAEA Rafael Mariano Grossi, a letter of gratitude for his support to Pakistan in the difficult times of pandemic.
One of the goals of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission hospitals is the dissemination of knowledge to the general public and spread awareness about cancer that can be cured if it is diagnosed at the early stages. For this purpose, various events such as workshops, seminars, conferences, and symposiums are being organized in collaboration with medical colleges, NGOs, universities, Cancer Patients Welfare Societies to spread cancer awareness. Other than that PAEC hospitals have been involved in various other activities such as arranging walks for cancer awareness, delivering lectures at colleges and universities, displaying banners, and distributing informative brochures /leaflets.
PAEC’s nuclear medical centers are also involved in international collaborations through IAEA, WHO, IRC, UICC with the developed countries. PAEC provides its doctors and scientists access to international organizations and institutes. This gives them opportunities to participate in various international training programs and attend conferences and events in order to keep themselves updated with the changes taking place in the medical field. Though cancer research is very difficult to conduct anywhere, in the under developed countries this challenge becomes considerably increased.
The PAEC hospitals, NILOP, and PIEAS are actively involved in research related to cancer and other infectious diseases. Pakistan has become an associate member of ‘CERN’ which is a European Organization for Nuclear Research, due to the efforts of PAEC scientists, researchers, and technicians. Based on such strong credentials, now Pakistani researchers and scientists actively participate in the research activities organized by IAEA and CERN. IAEA also provides technical support to Pakistan for capacity building in the application of innovative and advanced nuclear technologies and research and development. Pakistan is also a founding member of (SESAME) ‘Synchrotron light for Experimental Science and Application in the Middle East’. Synchrotron light is used as an essential tool in basic and applied sciences and also used for experimental purposes. Hence the contributions of all the research and development institutes that are functioning under PAEC such as ‘PIEAS’, ‘NIBGE’, ‘PINSTECH’, ‘NIAB’, ‘CHASCENT’, and ‘KINPOE’ is commendable.
Summarizing it all, the sustained efforts of PAEC to overcome the challenges related to oncology and provide healthcare education has had a tremendous impact on reducing the mortality and morbidity associated with such diseases. All of the contributions made by the PAEC show its strong commitment to provide the best way to deal with cancerous diseases in a cost-effective manner. To attain sustainable human resource development for patient-related services, continuous training and education are fundamental ingredients which PAEC has ensured by encouraging its scientists and doctors to participate in international workshops.
Last but not the least, with the growing demand, PAEC aims to further enhance its capacity of early detection, cancer prevention, develop a national cancer registry, and more national and international collaborations for training and research. This would remain a strong manifestation of Pakistan’s commitment towards peaceful uses of nuclear technology and energy in the years to come.
*The writer is working as a Research Affiliate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, Pakistan.