Shaukat Khanum – Pakistan’s fight against cancer amidst a pandemic

Dr Muhammed Aasim Yusuf

As we leave behind an extraordinary and extremely difficult year, all of us at the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust (SKMT) would like to express our gratitude to the people of Pakistan for their resilience, compassion and extraordinary generosity. The support of the Pakistani nation for the national cause that is Shaukat Khanum meant that we were able to fight on two fronts this year, as we battled both cancer and the coronavirus. More than ever before, in 2020, your support ensured that SKMT continued to be a beacon of hope amidst the gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic, for those suffering from cancer. I would like to take this opportunity to review the year and to update you on our plans for the future.

As Pakistan was witnessing the first wave of the pandemic, we took a number of measures in all areas of our hospitals, in accordance with international best practice and guidelines, to ensure a safe environment for everyone at our facilities. These measures included restricting patient attendants and visitors, screening of all staff before entering clinical areas, enforcing social distancing, adhering to strict disinfection protocols, and use of all appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) as recommended by the World Health Organization. We did not lower our guard at any point, and continued to ensure we were prepared to provide a safe environment to our patients and staff. The measures we have taken to limit staff interaction, for example rotating vulnerable employees to non-clinical areas or allowing them to work from home, have been instrumental in keeping staff infection rates down.

Given our reliance on Zakat and donations, and with a huge expected downturn in clinical activity, we were naturally concerned about a possible drop in our income, which provides free cancer treatment for the needy. We made a special appeal to all our generous supporters and were humbled by the response received in the form of Zakat and donations. We are indeed grateful for the unstinting support of our donors, which is more important to us than ever before, given the unprecedented times that we are all passing through, as we grapple with the many devastating effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust has always been a forward-looking organisation, and we have our eyes set firmly on the future. We have started construction work on our third, and biggest, cancer hospital in Karachi, and surgical oncology services will commence at SKMCH&RC, Peshawar, in April 2021, marking the completion of Phase III of the development of that hospital. Work will also commence, Inshallah, on the new clinical building in Lahore, in September 2021.

The new hospital in Karachi will be the largest tertiary-care cancer centre in Pakistan, with state-of-the-art cancer diagnosis and treatment facilities all available under one roof. SKMCH&RC, Karachi, will serve all of Sindh, as well as Southern Baluchistan, and will help to bring cancer care closer to our patients. Construction on a twenty acre site in DHA City, is well under way, and the project is expected to be commissioned in less than three years, at a total cost of Rs. 13 billion. It will open as a fully functional cancer hospital, with all clinical disciplines in place, and equipped with the latest technology, including state-of-the-art diagnostic facilities as well as the latest in treatment planning and delivery systems. SKMCH&RC in Karachi, at one million square feet of constructed area, will be twice the size of the hospital in Lahore, and will have forty-seven outpatient examination rooms, a sixty-nine bed chemotherapy facility, two hundred and eighty-eight inpatient beds, sixteen operation theatres, and twenty-four intensive care beds.

Karachi is the philanthropic heart of Pakistan and, over the last thirty years, the people of Karachi have always supported our hospitals, enabling us to provide financially supported treatment facilities to over 75 percent of all our cancer patients, each year. There is no doubt in our minds that the people of Pakistan will now step forward to support what will be our, and Pakistan’s, largest tertiary-care cancer centre, in the most populous city, and the industrial and commercial heart, of our nation. For the year 2021, we need Rs. 19 billion to support not only our two existing state-of-the-art cancer centres but to continue the construction of the hospital in Karachi, to commence construction of the clinical building in Lahore and to continue to ensure that the latest technology is employed in providing cancer treatment at all our facilities. As in past years, we expect about half of this to be met through your generous donations and Zakat.

Finally, as you all know, we are in the midst of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and each one of us has an important role to play to ensure we successfully continue our fight against cancer and coronavirus. It is more important than ever, given that it is also winter and the ‘flu season, that we keep our guard up and wear our masks properly, practice hand hygiene and maintain social distancing. We cannot afford to relax at this point, but if we continue to show the same resolve we have throughout the previous year, I have no doubt that we will emerge a stronger nation and that Shaukat Khanum will continue to be Pakistan’s bulwark against cancer.