Pesticides lead to early
death of qat chewers
The widespread daily ritual of chewing
the amphetamine-rich leaf ‘qat’ is to
blame for the growing number of mouth
cancers in Yemen, according to local
NGO National Foundation to Support
The Foundation said the heavy use of
pesticides by farmers to grow the crop,
cultivated in Yemen for over 500 years,
was to blame for the proliferation of
According to Nadeem Mohammed
Saeed, head of the state-funded National
Oncology Centre (NOC) in the capital
Sanaa, about 30% of the cancer patients
he sees have mouth and gum cancers,
which some studies link to `qat’
as well as the heavy use of a chewing
tobacco known as ‘shamma’.
“This is really a frightening figure and
represents one of the world’s highest rates
for mouth and gum cancer,” Saeed said.
Millions chew ‘qat’ in Yemen, mostly
men. At the end of the workday, usually
from about 3pm, tight little bundles of
the mildly narcotic leaf are bought fresh,
and relaxing sessions of talking and
chewing begin, which can last hours.
An estimated 70% of households have
at least one person that uses ‘qat’, which
represents a huge and lucrative business
for growers. Cultivating the shrub takes
up more than 50% of arid Yemen’s arable
land and consumes 65% of its precious
groundwater, according Adel al-Shujaa,
head of the Combating ‘Qat’ Damage
Association, a local NGO.
The crop is not a hard-currency earner.
It is officially banned in neighbouring
Saudi Arabia, and with Yemen’s ‘qat’
consumption the highest in the region,
production is mostly for local use.
Few cancer treatment options
The 56-bed NOC, the only specialist oncology hospital in Yemen, is unable to
cope with the growing number of people
diagnosed with cancer.
“We don’t have enough beds to accommodate
hundreds of cancer patients
coming from all across the nation,” said
Jamal al-Azab, a doctor at the centre.
NOC has a waiting list of 300 patients,
and “too many patients stop frequenting
the centre after they fail to find unoccupied
beds,” he added.
“The centre’s monthly funding is
enough for the treatment of 200 cases, but
we receive some 400-450 cases per
month,” said Saeed.
Saeed’s deputy, Munif Ahmad Saleh,
noted that the World Health
Organisation recommends there should
be one oncology centre for one million
people, “but in Yemen we have only one
centre for 23 million people”.
Reluctance to give up
Given the apparent link between pesticide-
contaminated `qat’ and cancer,
perhaps Yemenis are starting to rethink
their addiction to the bitter green leaf?
“I cannot imagine life without it,” Muhammed, a taxi driver in his late 20s, told IRIN. “It is everything to me. It
like a father, mother and everything else.
[Without it] it would be very difficult to
work; I wouldn’t be able to concentrate,”
he said, chewing as he fought his way
through heavy traffic in central Sanaa.
Ahmed, another taxi driver, said: “I
start chewing in the morning to stay alert
and awake the whole day without feeling
a need for a nap. I work 24 hours and then
rest for a couple of days. ‘Qat’ makes that
possible. Why should I think of quitting
it? It gives me concentration and money
for my family – no way.”
IRIN interviewed men at a ‘qat’-
chewing session in a private house in
Sanaa to ask them whether they could
“I cannot,” said Ali al-Faqeeh, one of
more than 20 people present, adding that
if he stopped chewing he would be
lethargic or get a fever. “Cancer also
exists in many other countries where
there is no ‘qat’,” he added.
Ahmad Ali, a military officer, was fatalistic:
“If you have cancer, it is caused by
divine destiny,” adding that the government
tried to ban ‘qat’ use in the military,
but “failed”. – IRIN
of upload: 19th Dec 2010