The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Punjab cancer probe

Chandigarh, May 17: Amarinder Singh has commissioned the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Engineering and Research (PGI) to probe a spurt in cancer cases in and around Talwandi Sabo in Bathinda district.

“The PGI’s community medicine department will conduct a survey to establish if there has been an abnormal growth in cancer cases in the area as has been reported. If this is so, it will devise and suggest preventive strategies,” health director D.P.S. Sandhu said. The PGI will conduct house-to-house surveys in nearly 100 villages in the district, a health official said. “More than 3.5 lakh people will be interviewed,” he said.

The health department, which will help the PGI, did not report any substantial increase in cancer cases in its surveys. But people in Giana, Jajjal and Hamidi say many villagers have died of cancer. They say the brackish water containing high level of fluorine which they have been forced to drink owing to inadequate potable water has caused cancer. The use of pesticides has compounded the problem.

Sandhu said: “There are various categories of cancer patients in the region, cutting across all age groups. But reports of contaminated water spreading cancer seem to be far-fetched.”

“However, we do not want to take any chances. We conducted tests at Hamidi,” he said, adding that there was no cause for alarm. The health director said the government had not found any district recording a big rise in cancer cases. He said there was no need to do a comparative survey of different districts. “Ten cancer cases in 10 years at a single village cannot be termed unusual,” Sandhu said.

PGI community medicine department head, Rajesh Kumar, said a worried chief minister had asked the institute to conduct a comprehensive survey after a public hue and cry. “The issue was first highlighted by a social welfare group, Khet Virasat. Surveys were conducted by the Punjab Pollution Board, the health department and the Faridkot Medical College to find out why there had been a rise in cancer cases,” Kumar said. “If there is a problem, we will have to assess it and decide on a solution,” he said.

Khet Virasat has been educating farmers about the dangers of intensive farming and use of pesticides. It promotes organic farming and has spearheaded the fight against cancer.

More than 50,000 people have already answered the PGI questionnaire. Earlier government surveys that failed to detect a rise in cancer cases were based on a sample size of 4,000.

But after visiting the area, the chief minister asked the PGI to conduct an extensive survey. The PGI will also question people in Morinda in order to make a comparative analysis with other areas.

The institute will test soil samples as well as underground and surface water. Blood and urine samples will also be examined. “It will be an exhaustive survey,” a health official said.

The PGI will have its task cut out for illiteracy and ignorance has led villagers to harbour many misconceptions. Locals believe cancer is contagious and are taught to burn everything belonging to a dead patient, including documents relating to their treatment.

About three years ago, reports of cancer cases in Giana, a remote village on the Haryana border, alarmed the Punjab government. The administration treated patients for free and commissioned a survey in the area.

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