Myanmar's addiction to betel-nut chewing could be costing lives. Using the drug raises the risk of oral cancer, especially when consumed by smokers. According to the WHO, of the six countries in Southeast Asia where people chew betel nut quids, Myanmar consumes slightly more than half of the region’s total amount.
Patients diagnosed with oral cancer often forego treatment because it is too expensive, an expert says.
Professor Swe Swe Win, of the University of Dental Medicine in Yangon, says oral cancer is detected in more than 200 patients a year out of the 9000 people who come to the university for treatment.
“"Yangon Dental University gave treatment to these patients by operation and some of these are referred to Yangon General Hospital cancer department for radiotherapy treatment," said Professor Swe Swe Win. Most cannot afford the cost of treatment, which is normally K3 million to K5 million at the government, she added.
No figure is available for the death rate from oral cancer because research is still ongoing, she said.
“I have surveyed about 200 oral cancer patients based on two cancer registries from Yangon and Mandalay hospitals since 2012 with the Medical Research Department,” she said, adding that some patients died while the research was being conducted.
Research indicates that toxic chemicals in betel and cigarettes can cause oral cancer. Dangerous betel quid was also being illegally imported from India, she added.
Oral cancer is the fifth most common cancer in ASEAN and is emerging as a public health problem in Myanmar, where many people use betel and tobacco. Tobacco-related legislation is not very effective, Professor Swe Swe Win said.