Caritas Czech Republic helping thousands to gain access to cancer prevention in Georgia

Zugdidi screening center

Caritas Czech Republic, the biggest non-governmental provider of social and health services in the country, also has humanitarian aid projects in many countries of the world. With help from the Czech Development Agency, it built and equipped the first screening center in Zugdidi, Georgia. I spoke to Jan Blinka of Caritas CR about why they chose Georgia and how the center has been helping to raise awareness of screening and prevention in a country where cancer still carries a big stigma.

“For Caritas Czech Republic Georgia is one of the priority countries, as it is for Czech development cooperation. That was the main reason why we came to Georgia. We came here in 2008 and over the years we enriched out portfolio of donors and now we do not cooperate only with the Czech Development Agency but also the European Union, UNICEF and others.”

What was the situation there like when you started providing care?

“Well, speaking about this particular project - the oncology screening center in Zugdidi (finished in 2019) – then I have to say that people in the region did not have proper access to screening programs and prevention. They had to travel to Tbilisi, which is about 350 km away, in order to get screening. That was why the Czech Development Agency decided to support the building of a screening center in Zugdidi.”

Did you need to campaign about the importance of prevention?

“Definitely, we did and we still do. And it is not only us, but other national institutions here. People in Georgia are still not very much aware of the need for prevention and early detection also because cancer still carries a stigma in this country.  So there was a huge awareness campaign that started in 2010, long before we actually built the center, aimed at raising awareness about the importance of screening. This campaign is still ongoing and it worked in our favour because it attracted attention to the screening center and people were encouraged to see the service it provides, which is covered by the state for free. It gave people the motivation to come to the center and undergo the screening process. In order to encourage this we collaborated with the local GPs, with community leaders, we organized meetings with the public.”

So you have local doctors working at the center?

Zugdidi screening center | Photo: Czech Development Agency

“Yes, the center is run by a local service provider, a local NGO which specializes in cancer prevention, we trained their staff and now there are about twenty specialists working at the center – doctors, nurses, technicians and support staff.”

Do you know how many patients the center has helped in the past two years?

“Yes, it was about 6,000 people in all. We aimed for more, but the pandemic was a limiting factor.”

The Covid pandemic has undermined prevention programs around the world. What was your experience – how big was the impact?

“It was bad, because the state-imposed restrictions did not enable people to undergo screening and preventive health care. Also, people were afraid to commute and they had more important issues to deal with at the time. So the center was closed for several months during the worst of the pandemic. All this led to a lower performance of the center than we expected. We wanted it to serve many more people than it has; the capacity is there but unfortunately, we were not able to make full use of it.”

Are things improving now?

Zugdidi screening center | Photo: Czech Development Agency

“Yes, they are to some extent. However, the pandemic is not over and each new wave is disruptive.”

Is your aid in Zugdidi time-limited or do you have long-term plans there?

“Our project in Zugdidi is practically finished, the screening center was handed over to a local service provider, we provided them with increased capacities, mentoring, IT services and we secured professional quality services. We are now involved in a related project, financed by the Czech Interior Ministry via its MEDEVAC fund, which focusses on oncology prevention in the field of gynecology and related care. Not in Zugdidi, but in Western Georgia. Of course, we are working in close cooperation with the screening center in Zugdidi.”

In what other areas is Caritas helping in Georgia?

“We are trying to help provide nation-wide solutions, because we also work on systemic improvements in primary health care and social protection. We are also focusing on the mountain regions –in Tusheti, Racha-Lechkhumi in Lower Svaneti and Adjara Khulo –where we are helping to improve the quality of life, improve people’s social and economic status. Those regions are still underdeveloped and although the tourism potential is great not all areas are prepared for it and external assistance is needed.”

So we are talking about livelihood issues, nature protection?

Zugdidi screening center | Photo: Czech Development Agency

“That’s right. We are assisting small and medium businesses to improve their performance- by grants or technical assistance, business advice, contacts to help them get on the market and so on. We are also working in environmental protection and waste management. This is an area where we are very active; we help local municipalities manage the waste that is created on their territory more efficiently, meaning that we provide them with technical expertise, advice on how to set up the whole waste collecting system and so on, as well as supporting them with hardware, like garbage trucks , containers etc.”

You spend a lot of your time in Georgia. Can you share your impressions of the country and the people?

“Georgia is a beautiful country and the people are very nice. Of course, this applies to any country and people are nice everywhere if you make an effort. But, Georgia is an amazing place with great nature, with great cuisine and a lot of potential for development –in the hospitality sector mostly, but I would love to see development in other areas of business as well.  Because the local people cannot only depend on one sector –which is tourism – they need to invest in the development of value-added economics and I hope that this will be the future direction taken, because the potential is there.”

How has your time in the country changed you? Is there anything you embraced from the local culture and way of life?

Photo: Czech Development Agency

“Absolutely. I definitely have. I know it may sound like a silly thing. In the Czech Republic, when we drink, we just drink, somehow, but, here it is a moment for sharing, for telling stories from the heart and making connections with people.  That made a big impression on me. Also, I am more attentive to differences – different cultures, different personalities, different religions. In general, I would say I am more satisfied with life, and with what we have in the Czech Republic.”