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Refugees in Jordan, Syria Denied Cancer Treatment for Lack of Funds

FILE - Residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the U.N. refugee agency at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus, Syria, May 2014.
The U.N. refugee agency says hundreds of refugees in Jordan and Syria are being denied cancer treatment because of lack of funds.

UNHCR’s top medical expert, Paul Spiegel, told VOA that decisions on who gets treatment and who does not are made on the basis of cost. He said helping the largest number of people with the limited amount of money on hand is usually the determining factor.

“For the colleagues themselves that have to deal with this, it is extremely difficult and we sometimes try to help them, to give them counseling," said Spiegel. "We have a standard operating procedure that can be shared with both the doctors and the refugees to say this is what happens, and we do this in order to help the most amount of people. But no matter which way you look at it, it is a horrible experience.”

A new UNHCR study tracks refugee cancer cases in Jordan and Syria from 2009 to 2012. It says the number of cases in the region is rising because there are more refugees and more people fleeing middle-income countries, such as Syria.

The UNHCR has set up an Exceptional Care Committee, which decides whether to fund expensive treatments. The study finds the most common form of cancer among refugees is breast cancer, accounting for almost one-quarter of all applications in Jordan.

Of 511 cancer cases, Spiegel said fewer than half were approved for treatment between 2010 and 2012. He said treatment is usually denied to patients with little chance of recovery.

“So, that the treatment would not actually prolong the life or prolong for a very short period of time-six months and would be very expensive," said Spiegel. "Someone like this would be denied because-again, I know it sounds heartless, and it is a very difficult decision, but with a limited amount of money, we can ensure that we can treat people where we can hopefully cure the cancer or at least it is called a functional cure, so that they will have at least five more years, hopefully a life time.”

Spiegel notes many hospitals in Syria have been destroyed or closed by conflict. He said it is likely that many Syrians with serious health problems choose to leave the country more in hopes of getting treated for their illnesses than out of security concerns.