Lack of awareness and late diagnosis of deadly diseases like cancer motivated Dr. Zahra Hussaini to come up with a test that detects mouth cancer before it happens. But, after passing through twists and turns, she wants to set up her first laboratory and clinic in Kashmir.
Oral Cancer is one of the biggest killers in India, where a huge chunk of population has almost no access to a doctor; forget hospitals. In such a scenario, imagine, if a small and a simple test can detect cancer about to happen five or ten years down the line; wouldn’t that be a boon for a person.
Well, Dr. Zahra Hussaini has done just the same.
Born and brought up in the coastal city of Mumbai, Dr. Hussaini has invented a test which can detect cancer way before it actually happens. The former India Coordinator for American Academy for Implant Dentistry is now planning to set up a clinic and a laboratory in Kashmir.
However, her journey to glory is dotted with pitfalls. From trial and error, to becoming collateral damage in a land grab case, she has seen and endured it all.
It all started almost 10 years ago when Dr. Hussaini was working at the prestigious Nanavati Hospital of Mumbai.
“I used to share a common room with the linear accelerator department, which handled cancer patients,” she said, as we sit to talk inside a lake-view restaurant in Srinagar. “So I used to watch patients come there for treatment. And some of them were even referred to me for fluoride application. It’s a treatment for those who suffer from head and neck cancer.”
When she came into contact with these ‘terminally ill’ patients, she realized that lack of awareness and late detection were the reasons behind strengthened roots of cancer in India.
Among her patients were women — educated, progressive, professionals, she said. “Like a colleague would share a few bits of pan masala, that’s how they start,” she said. “I remember a lady who came to me. She had come from a dentist. That is when I realized that we lack awareness in this country where patients often turn up late for check-up.”
A diploma holder in Cosmetics from New York University and in Lasers from the University of Austria, Dr. Hussaini said that her journey towards inventing her test started when she thought about the undetected ‘pre-cancerous’ lesions .
Oral Cancer doesn’t happen overnight, she said, but over a period of 5-10 years. “There are certain lesions called pre-cancerous lesions. They remain undetected due to lack of awareness. So that’s how my journey started.”
Thing is, she said, with awareness and early detection, we can actually prevent cancer. Unlike other cancers, oral cancer is not hidden — and therefore, with a little awareness, the patient can undergo a self check-up.
“Patient can feel a lump in the mouth unlike in stomach or lungs,” she said. “There is something called the self examination. So if we have awareness, the patient can check it in the mirror. And Oral cancer doesn’t happen overnight.”
How does the Hussaini’s cancer detection kit work?
“It’s a very simple test,” Dr. Hussaini said. “Painless, bloodless.”
She started on the lines of the Pap Smear test (cervical cancer detection) which is a painless brush test. In the early 1940s and 50s, cervical cancer was the number-one cause of death in women. “Today I guess it’s on the 15th spot,” she said. “So just with a simple test it has reduced so much. So on similar lines, I have developed this kit which has two different tests.”
The first test is the Brush Test, as Dr. Hussaini calls it. And the other involves a blade, which is less invasive.
“I compare it with a broom. Just like we broom the floor, we just scrape a few cells from the mouth. The tester is like a pen with a few bristles up front. Then I take the cells which go to the lab for testing,” she said.
To minimize human error and increase accuracy, Dr. Hussaini uses digitalized pathological scanners.
“If the brush test is positive, then we use the blade, which is a little more painful but less invasive. In short it a very simple painless, bloodless test and anybody with a minimal training can do it,” Dr. Hussaini said without divulging much detail as she is waiting for the launch first.
This simple test can be undertaken by anyone, she said, and will be beneficial in a country like India where millions have no access to a doctor.
She plans to train everyone.
“Looking at a country like India, where people do not even have access to a doctor, a surgeon or even a hospital. It’s the villages where the numbers are extremely high and people die before even reaching a doctor. So I thought, let’s have something so simple that even an office boy can do,” she said.
She plans to train not only doctors but the entire medical fraternity: the ENT, the physician, the family doctor, the homeopath.
“All these doctors check the oral cavity,” she said. “Training them will naturally bring down the number of oral cancers in the coming years.”
‘Like Polio, it has to be a public health project’
Dr. Hussaini wants the government to declare her project a public health project like Polio. During the UPA regime, it was about to happen. However, the government changed and the process slowed down.
“It was about four years ago that during one of my free medical camps, one of the patients tested positive. I followed up with him, counselled him and gave him basic treatment. We did a test again after four months and it was negative. I was happy that I could save a person from cancer,” she said. “That is when I was called to the Ministry of Health and they wanted to make it a Public Health Programme.”
With the Ministry of Health, she got involved with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the highest science body in India. With their assistance, “we formed a team of 20 doctors selected from all over India.” Six hospitals were also selected in Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Chandigarh. Then, after over a year of meetings and protocol, the government changed and the process stopped, she said. “I still need to follow up.”
Dr. Hussaini feels that the government needs to step in and assist her spread awareness against the number one killer in India: Oral cancer.
“We have more than 1.5 lac PHCs in the country,” she said. “So if we have this very easy test at all these centres, which are easily approachable to the people living in rural India, we can actually stop this deadly disease.”
Dr. Hussaini, whose test has already got clearance from the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) is all set to launch it soon without passing through trials.
“I am planning to launch it soon commercially,” she said. “Then probably the government will follow. At the moment I have decided to launch myself and people will join in.”
But as of now, the government is a bit slow in pushing this thing forward, she said. Is her ‘religious identity’ slowing down the process?
“No. Not at all,” she said. “I don’t think this deadly disease looks at peoples’ religion but yes, it looks at the habit. My invention does not follow religious segregation but it’s an invention for humanity.”
For the poor, her treatment will be absolutely free. “That will also include counselling and a diet plan,” she said. “So I am very clear in my mind that we are going to treat human beings.” This is a project not only for India but for the world at large, she asserted. “And with this we are going to reduce human sufferings and save human lives.”
‘Aaj se Dawakhana Bandh’
Apart from medical disappointments, it has not been a pushover at all for Dr. Hussaini, so far. She recalled a day when she reached her clinic in the posh Juhu area of Mumbai and was told: “Aj se dawakhana bandh (From today your medical shop is closed).” It was some ‘thug’ shouting at her.
“I had no idea what to do,” she said. “Someone told me to go to the police station and I didn’t know where it was.”
That is when her tryst with the police and the courts started. And it was not easy for somebody like Dr. Hussaini who knew nothing about cops and courts. With the result, she had to run from pillar to post. She eventually won the case, but ‘justice’ eludes her till date.
“I have not still recovered my equipment, research papers, my original certificates and International awards, degrees and other things in the clinic,” she said. “Everything is gone. It was a state-of-the-art clinic. I never had magazines in my waiting area. I had touch screens with dental educational programmes uploaded which the patient could see while waiting. Just like airports have kiosks, I had one too.”
She later came to know that she had become ‘collateral damage’ in a land grab case involving mafia. Even the police told her that it was a very common thing in this area. “It was a posh locality with many villas vacant and their owners living abroad or dead or the villas are just vacant,” she said. “And these land grabbers just come and grab the place.”
Before starting her clinic, she had an agreement and all her papers were cleared. “There was this family living in the ground floor and I was on the first floor,” she said. “I didn’t know that they were land grabbers until one fine day they decided to sell that Bungalow to a builder and the builder did all this.”
The incident forced Dr. Hussaini to wind up operations from Mumbai and shift to Bangalore. “I restarted a clinic in Bangalore. I have bought everything new but what about my papers? When am I going to get them back? The question remains that why did this happen to me. So I am hurt that we don’t have a system in place and that I didn’t get justice.”
Kashmir has done to Hussaini what it does to everyone: It has mesmerized her with its beauty and made her fall in love with the people because of their hospitable nature.
Unlike a regular tourist, she has some ‘big plans’ for Kashmir.
“My project is such that it needs to be in every part of the country,” she said. “Kashmir will be one of the first destinations where I am planning to set up a laboratory and a clinic. And maybe, Inshallah, (Insha Allah) we will start from here.”
She also pointed out that at first she was happy to see ‘No Smoking’ boards and zones almost everywhere in the city. “I thought people don’t smoke much here,” she said. However, soon she came to realize that Kashmiris might as well be the worst kind of smokers in the subcontinent.
For those who think that smoking is not as dangerous as chewing tobacco, Hussaini has a message: “People here don’t chew tobacco. That’s really good. But you guys smoke. A lot. Let me tell you that smoking damages the lips, the fingers, the mouth, teeth, throat, lungs, veins, eyes, heart.”
She doesn’t know yet why people smoke here so much.
“Is it the stress they are going through or is it the weather or something else,” she said, “but smoking is not an answer. It’s a bad habit. A fatal habit.”
“Why can’t we follow the age old saying that ‘Prevention is better than cure’,” says Dr. Zahra, worried about the widespread smoking among the people of Kashmir.
Stop tobacco before it stops you, she concludes.