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Alarming spike in new cancer patients in Sri Lanka amidst aflatoxin fears in foodstuffs

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by Suresh Perera

In the backdrop of concerns expressed by medical experts over ingesting foodstuffs with carcinogenic aflatoxins, Sri Lanka has witnessed a disturbing spike in cancer with 33,226 fresh cases on the basis of 89 new patients per day reported in 2019.

The number of cancer-related mortalities during the year under review was 16,691 with 46 patients dying of the dreaded disease per day, according to new statistics.

“There were 75,909 prevalent cases of cancer in Sri Lanka’, the Health Ministry’s National Cancer Control Program (NCCP), said.

Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) account for almost 83% of total deaths in the country and the proportional mortality due to cancer is estimated to be 14%, it said.

“Newly detected cancer cases have shot up from a moderate 13,372 in 2005 to more than 30,000 in 2019”, says NCCP’s Acting Director, Dr. Janaki Vidanapathirana.

“There has been a steady surge in new cancer cases over the past 14 years”, she said.

Medical experts contend that aflatoxins (a family of toxins produced by certain fungi found on agricultural crops such as maize (corn), peanuts, cottonseed, and tree nuts) in the human system can cause a carcinogenic reaction over a period of time.

Director-General of the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI), Dr. Siddika Senaratne’s recent assertion that, apart from imported coconut oil, certain other consumables also contained aflatoxins, triggered a controversy over the safe consumption of certain foodstuffs.

Amidst public fears over products identified on social media platforms, rightly or wrongly, the critical question that emerged was for how long people had been consuming such foodstuffs and whether they continue to do so despite the claimed carcinogenic substances in them.

There was confusion in the public mind as Dr. Senaratne declined to identify the contaminated products saying that naming them will reflect adversely on the trade.

“They should be given time to remedy the shortcomings”, she said.

Asked whether the presence of aflatoxin in imported coconut oil, as discovered recently, and possibly other foodstuffs could have contributed towards the exponential increase in the incidence of cancer in the country, Dr. Vidanapathirana said that exposure to any aflatoxin will increase the risk of cancer, but it depends on the duration and the quantum ingested.

There are usually 800-850 new liver cancer cases per year caused mainly due to alcohol consumption, tobacco smoking, hepatitis b and c and aflatoxins. Cancer is of multifactorial origin. Tobacco causes 15 types of cancers in the human body, while alcohol accounts for five types, the Consultant Community Physician explained.

Leading the list of top 10 cancers in Sri Lanka amongst males was mouth, lip and tongue cancer at 14% in 2019 followed by trachea, bronchus and lung (9%), colorectal (8%) oesophagus (7%), prostate (7%), larynx (4%), bladder (4%), lymphoma (4%), thyroid (3%) and others (40%).

Amongst females, breast cancer topped the list at 26% followed by thyroid (13%), colorectal (7%), ovary (6%), oesophagus (5%), uterus (4%), ovary (6%) trachea, bronchus and lung (3%), lymphoma (3%), oral (3%) and others (25%).

Oral cancer in Sri Lanka remains the highest in the world, Dr. Vidanapathirana said, while stressing that a structured program of action to arrest the alarming trend is the need of the hour.

Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. Cancer develops when the body’s normal control mechanism stops working. Old cells do not die and instead grow out of control, forming new, abnormal cells. These extra cells may form a mass of tissue, called a tumor. Some cancers, such as leukemia, do not form tumors.

“Cancer can be prevented through early detection”, she noted, while warning that obesity, tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption and physical inactivity have been identified as some of the primary causes that lead to the dreaded disease.

Asked whether consumption of milk activates dormant cancer cells, she replied “I don’t know. There’s no such evidence”

However, the intake of dairy milk is associated with a greater risk of breast cancer in women, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Loma Linda University Health.

Dairy, soy and risk of breast cancer: Those confounded milks, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, found that even relatively moderate amounts of dairy milk consumption can increase women’s risk of breast cancer — up to 80% depending on the amount consumed.

First author of the paper, Gary E. Fraser, MBChB, PhD, said the observational study gives “fairly strong evidence that either dairy milk or some other factor closely related to drinking dairy milk is a cause of breast cancer in women, the ScienceDaily reported in 2020. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200225101323.htm)



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Vaccinations: eminent group follows-up with Prez., PM and ministers

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The group of eminent academics, professionals and civic activists, led by former Colombo University Vice Chancellor, Prof. Savitri Gunasekera, who wrote to the Director General of Health earlier this month (Sunday Island June 6) together with some others have now written a follow-up letter to the President, Prime Minister, the Health Minister and state ministers of health.

We reproduce its text below:

“We are writing to you as a follow up to our letter to the Director General Health, which appeared in the Sunday Island of June 6, 2021.

We raised in that letter certain  critical issues in regard to the current Covid vaccination programme. We highlighted the need for clarity in policy planning and programming and the importance of ensuring equitable access to Covid vaccines.

We asked that all front line workers providing Covid health services should be given priority. We questioned the exclusion of some and the need for rational system for determining front line workers and vulnerable categories. That should be given priority in the administration of the vaccine.

“We trust that the specific questions we have asked will receive clear answers from the Director General. We hope that the Minister of Health and State Ministers will facilitate that process as soon as possible, and as a matter of urgency. This will inspire public  confidence in the health system that the whole country witnessed, and was  acknowledged even globally, when the government commenced its Covid response programme in 2020.   

“We now understand that some stocks of Astrazeneca vaccine are still available for distribution. We also understand from an official press release and the media that new stocks of Astrazeneca  have arrived or are expected soon. We are now writing to urge and call upon you to please ensure that this vaccine is distributed in a completely transparent and planned manner to those citizens who received the first Astrazeneca vaccine.

 “All those who received the first Astrazeneca vaccine in the initial phase of  the Ministry of Health vaccination programme (after February 2021),  have a right to receive the second in the manner that is medically recommended. There is a lack of clarity in regard to the recommended period of time between the two doses of the vaccine. Already three months have passed since the first Astrazeneca vaccine was administered. A prolonged lapse of time between the vaccines can make the vaccine ineffective. This will impact on the success of the vaccination campaign in responding to the Covid pandemic. It is the duty of the Health Ministry to ensure that the second Astrazeneca vaccine is given to persons who received the first, as soon as the vaccines come to the country, without any further delays.

 “In doing so, we ask that within this group, priority is given to all front line workers directly involved in Covid health services, and to citizens over the age of 60-years, taking account of the date and the locations of the vaccination points. These are categories considered most vulnerable to the Covid disease globally, and according to the evidence base and statistics currently available in Sri Lanka. The Director General in media statements on the Ministry of Health guidelines, has also recognized senior citizens as a vulnerable category that must be given first priority in vaccine distribution and  administration. This is being recognized (and should continue to be recognized) in relation to the current Sinopharm and Sputnik vaccination distribution.

“Denying citizens their right to receive the second Astrazeneca vaccine in completion of the first part of their vaccination regime is a violation of the right to equality and non-discrimination in access to health care.  We call upon you to ensure that necessary priority is given to all front line workers and other identified vulnerable categories in the administration of the second Astrazeneca vaccine. Early information on the date and time for vaccinations should be provided as is the practice now followed in regard to the new vaccines, which have come into the country.

“Successive governments have respected, fulfilled and protected the important right to equitable access to health care from the time of independence, for over 70 years. We call upon the Government to collectively fulfill this responsibility to the People, in administering what is left of the Astrazeneca vaccines and in distributing new stocks.”

 

The signatories to the letter are:

Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, Emeritus Professor of Law and Former Vice Chancellor, University of Colombo; Dr. G. Usvatte-aratchi, Retired from UN/DESA, New York; Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict;  Prof. Arjuna Aluvihare, Emeritus Professor of Surgery and former Vice Chancellor, University of Peradeniya, former Chairman, University Grants Commission; Prof. Gananath Obeysekere, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Princeton University, USA; Bishop Duleep de Chickera, retired Anglican Bishop of Colombo; Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka, former Executive Director of the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission; Mr. Chandra Jayaratne, former Chairman, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce; Prof. Deepika Udagama, Professor of Law, University of Peradeniya, former Chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka; Prof. Camena Guneratne, Department of Legal Studies, Open University of Sri Lanka; Prof Gameela Samarasinghe, Department of Sociology, University of Colombo; Dr A. C. Visvalingam – Past President, Society of Structural Engineers, Sri Lanka; Rev. Dr. Jayasiri Peiris, former General Secretary of the National Christian Council, former Principal of the Theological College of Sri Lanka; Dr. Ranjini Obeyesekere, Retired Professor, Dept. of Anthropology, Princeton University, USA; Mr. Priyantha Gamage, Attorney-at-Law, Commissioner, Legal Aid Commission of Sri Lanka; and Mr. SCC Elankovan, Attorney-at-Law and social activist

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Legendary conservationist to speak to Lankans on June 17 under WNPS aegis

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17th June 7 pm via Zoom and FB Live

Please register online https://forms.gle/8esbeh7SXbKdGuAK6

Dr. Jane Goodall, a legendary scientist, conservationist and humanitarian, who was named a UN Messenger of Peace in 2002, honoring her for a remarkable career that demonstrated her “dedication to what is best in mankind,” will deliver a public lecture on June 17 under the aegis of the Wild Life and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) and the Nations Trust Bank, the organizers announced last week.

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make,” WNPS said announcing the ‘Can’t Miss’ event via zoom and FB live beginning at 7 p.m.

The event is intended to “empower young people to make the world a better place

by caring for the world they inhabit and living sustainable lifestyles,” the WNPS news release said.

Jane Goodall made her name in the conservation world through detailed observations of chimpanzee behavior in Gombe National Park in Tanzania in the ‘60s; she revolutionized what it means to be human and challenged conventional theories held at the time, including tool use by chimpanzees and that chimpanzees are omnivores, not herbivores and have complex emotional lives and social constructs.

At heart she has always been a primatologist and it was her love for apes that thrust her career into conservation, in an effort to help protect their habitat and to preserve Earth for all species.

Participants can register online at https://forms.gle/8esbeh7SXbKdGuAK6

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Virtusa adds 24/7 COVID-19 Care Portal for employees to growing list of Pandemic Response and Recovery Initiatives

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SOUTHBOROUGH, Mass. – (June 7, 2021) – 

Virtusa Corporation (NASDAQ GS: VRTU), a global provider of digital strategy, digital engineering, and IT services and solutions, recently introduced a 24/7 COVID-19 Care Portal tailored to ensure the health and safety of its team.

In Sri Lanka, Virtusa enabled all team members to update their health and risk factors remotely, tracking and managing the well-being of its workforce and their families through the portal, mitigating threats of spread, recording vaccination progress, validating healthy employees and providing the option of safely returning to the workplace.

The app is supported by the 24/7 Virtusa call center that provides end-to-end pre and post COVID-19 care and assistance to employees, inclusive of transport, medication, food, help in procuring hospital beds and ambulances, self-quarantine and homecare support, in light of the recent surge of new cases in Sri Lanka.

Over 450 Virtusans have registered as ‘War Room’ volunteers to assist the core team in procuring necessary service providers and other amenities to ensure the smooth running of care efforts. A Virtusa COVID Care Fund was also set up to enable global team members to lend support financially, with Virtusa matching the contribution to cover medical exigencies beyond comprehensive group medical insurance plans.

A COVID-19 Information Center was also launched online to provide details related to vaccination centers and other regulated health and safety procedures in Sri Lanka.

“At Virtusa, our priority is to provide the best of care to our Virtusa family,” says Sundar Narayanan, Chief People Officer at Virtusa, who is also leading the Care Portal Initiative across the company.

“This means that everyone has access to best-in-class healthcare from the safety of their homes. At the same time, we are also reviewing our dashboard continuously, committed to exploring new scalable, replicable and digitized solutions that can address any eventualities that may arise going forward.”

Other key initiatives include enhanced medical insurance coverage, at home and drive-in COVID testing facilities, medical consultations and vaccination support for all team members. Virtusa also partnered with two private hospitals to dedicate eight beds exclusively for Virtusans and their family members who require urgent COVID-19 related medical attention. The team is also empowering employees with mental and physical well-being initiatives virtually, all the while ensuring benchmarked customer service and delivery at a global scale.

Having successfully partnered with the Ministry of Health in Sri Lanka to execute COVID-19 immunization drives in the Colombo Municipality earlier this year, the Virtusa Sri Lanka team continues voluntary services at Government vaccination centers in the Western province to support vaccination drives across local communities.

In neighboring India, home to a number of Virtusa offices, where the fight against COVID still continues, teams have been equipped with additional resources including makeshift COVID Care centers manned by Virtusan volunteers and medical experts in isolated parts of Virtusa facilities, home quarantining support as well as procurement of oxygen cylinders, with orders placed for oxygen concentrators to be made available for support during medical emergencies.

Furthermore, a mobile app – vRaahat, was developed and launched by internal teams to provide team members end-to-end support with real-time and proactive features including triggering an SOS alert, access to pre and post Covid-19 care, assistance in procuring oxygen cylinders among other features.

 

 

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