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Developing Preventive Health Care in Albania

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Developing Preventive Health Care in Albania

Ana Gjokutaj, Communications Officer in the Tirana Office, offers this story.

Lisa, graceful and tall, looks strong, but her eyes betray her concern as she walks across a short hallway in Albania's capital to the mammography room for a routine screening. Her fear is understandable. The 48-year old had a mastectomy after doctors diagnosed a malignant lump in her left breast and treated Lisa for cancer.

Lisa has come here from Erseka, a small city 240 km from the capital Tirana to follow her health situation. It isn't that far as the crow flies, but the road is bad and climbs over mountains. A one way trip can take most of the day on public transportation. Until recently Lisa had no choice but to make the trip. This was the only place to get a mammogram in a country with a population of just over 3 million. But next time Lisa won't have to travel far. A new mammography unit is now operating in the city of Korca, less than an hour drive from her home town.

With support from the World Bank, the Health Ministry put four state-of-the-art mammography machines in four big cities in different areas of Albania at a cost of US$1.9 million. The test will be free to all patients.

Each year, 400 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in Albanian women. Most of them are discovered at a late stage, when the disease has advanced, is hard to treat, and often results in death. Doctors say that being able to diagnose cases early will mean better chances of survival and higher possibilities of a cure.

The new mammography unit at the Oncology Hospital in Tirana has advanced technology. In addition to taking images, doctors can also remove tissue to biopsy cells in order to get a precise diagnosis.

"On average, there are 10 mammography examinations per day," says Ilir Loci, technical staff at the Oncology Hospital in Tirana. "Among those examinations, there are the ones at an advanced stage of the sickness."

Testing through mammography is still new to Albanian women. There has been a lack of information and no tradition of preventive health care for breast cancer checkups. Prevention is still in its infancy; most women go to the doctor when the sickness has already "settled" in the body.

"I was under stress for a long period of time in the family, and later I noticed the nodes. I was scared," says Anita from Tepelena, about 200 km from Tirana. "I had my prejudices about this disease and I had to travel long distances, so it took me a year until I came for the test and started the treatment. The doctor said I should have come earlier and the treatment would have been more effective and less painful. But I'm doing well."

This situation is starting to change. There are campaigns aimed at women to raise their awareness of breast and cervical cancer. And a new campaign is about to be launched urging health care practitioners to routinely screen women for breast cancer and to refer them for mammograms.

Statistics show that the yearly cost of treating a cancer patient ranges from 15,000 to 40,000 Euros, depending on how far advanced the disease is. So early diagnosis will both increase women's chances of living longer and reduce medical costs.

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