Protecting cancer carers: Reducing the risk of hazardous drugs in oncology

Oncology nurses on the front-line are at high risk from using hazardous drugs to treat cancer patients. How should they be better protected?

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of health worker safety, with medical staff finding it difficult to procure sufficient personal protective equipment and other medical protection equipment to help them treat COVID-19 patients safely.

But with more than 30 million people predicted to be diagnosed with cancer by 2040, up from an estimated 20 million in 2020, oncology nurses continue to be exposed to the potentially dangerous side effects — including hair loss, infertility, miscarriages, and increased risk of leukemia to name a few — from using hazardous drugs to treat cancer patients.

While tangible progress has been made in some countries, such as legislation, training and education, and provision of equipment to minimize exposure, the situation in many low- to middle-income nations remains grim.

Mary Moyo (not her real name), a Zimbabwean nurse who works in the only cancer center in the country, has been working in suboptimal conditions for years. “All I can do to protect myself is spend as little time as possible in drug preparation rooms,” Moyo said.

Meanwhile, Jimvert Camarillo, head nurse at Perpetual Help Medical Center, explained how in practice, it was difficult to adhere to international standards to handle hazardous drugs in the Philippines, but advocated for more training and education as one way of improving the situation. “[S]afe handling begins with education,” he said. “[W]e must train our oncology nurses, what are the effects of these hazardous agents, how can we prevent this exposure, what are the barriers, how can we dispose of this hazardous agent.”

Read the full visual story on protecting cancer carers.

For more coverage on health worker and patient safety, visit the Safety First series. Join the conversation using the hashtags #HCWSafety and #PatientSafety.

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