There was little left of Stacy Erholtz, but the tumors on her forehead, collarbone and spine that reminded her she was losing a battle to a deadly blood cancer she had fought for more than a decade.
Doctors had tried every conceivable chemotherapy drug as well as two stem cell treatments to rid the mother of three of the multiple myeloma that poisoned her blood, but, with each passing treatment, she would relapse again.
Then researchers at the Mayo Clinic decided to give the Minnesota woman and five other multiple myeloma patients like her a massive dose of a highly concentrated, lab-engineered virus enough to inoculate 10 million people and one similar to the measles vaccine.
It's remarkable, said Erholtz, who, more than six months since the inoculation, has no signs of cancer. Who would have thought?
To their credit doctors, doctors at the Mayo Clinic did and, eventually, concluded, that viruses allowed to enter the body can, indeed, destroy toxic tissue. Now the concept, dubbed virotherapy, is under further investigation at a number of cancer sites including one in Latvia, where medical tourism patients are traveling from all over the world to receive Rigvir a cancer fighting agent converted initially from a virus though biotechnology processes.
Cancer is a big deal in Latvia, where the Medical Tourism Association will hold a day-long training workshop to ensure that vital medical travel protocols are properly extended to patients seeking treatments for these and other ailments.
According to Gunta Purkaine, director of oncology at Stradins Hospital, in Riga, 74,647 residents of Latvia were diagnosed with the all-too-often death sentences that can be cancer. She said healthcare officials in Latvia are working diligently to diagnose early stages of cancer throughout Europe, where prevention has led to a reduced number of deaths.
First Medical Tourism Workshop
Early detection is critical, but, perhaps, even more importantly, is the awareness of what services are offered and the know-how to get medical tourism patients to-and-from these life-threatening procedures and treatments, said Renée-Marie Stephano, President of the Medical Tourism Association.
To this end, Stephano said, the workshop — sponsored and hosted by the Wellton Elefant Hotel, Thursday, May 28, in Riga — will offer education and training leading toward much-needed medical tourism certification.
Far too many are left in the dark about treatments and protocols that might save lives, said Stephano. Rigvir has shown some promise to be an effective drug in treating several cancers including conditions that affect the bladder, colon and lungs.
Those who complete the workshop, at the Wellton ElefantHotel, in Riga, are eligible to take the Certified Medical Tourism Professional exam offered by the Medical Tourism Association.
Stephano said virotherapy doesn't cure everyone and, certainly, more research needs to be conducted. But, as treatment gains acceptance and interest around the world takes hold, certification and training becomes that much more essential for the stakeholders medical tourism facilitators, doctors and hospital staff, and the hospitality and tourism interests — who can sometimes make or break a positive medical travel experience.
Stephano said certification communicates a specialized expertise and commitment to best practices recognized by healthcare providers, insurance entities, government agencies and tourism and travel facilitators worldwide.
Olafs Slti, president of Latvian Medical Export Association, said medical tourism to Latvia is a new initiative targeted to fuel the local economy. He said Latvian Medical Export, a non-profit association of hospitals, clinics, medical travel facilitators and related interests, was established to promote procedures and treatments available in Latvia to worldwide markets. So far, most patients have traveled from Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
“People chose Latvia because because they want medical services at affordable prices,” said Slti. “While Latvia is fortunate to have highly skilled doctors, these same healthcare professionals are not as adept at promoting their expertise. A workshop in medical tourism, can fill in the gaps and create an atmosphere that is beneficial to Latvia and international patients across the globe.”
Muhamads Loubs has been representing Latvian pharmaceutical companies in the Middle East for more than a decade. He believes the certification program will enable him to expand business opportunities.
“Certification will signify a learned foundation in medical tourism strategies — economic, social and cultural — and enable my business to promote health tourism to the Baltic sea region,” he said.
Foreigners don't need much prodding to visit Latvia, which according to the Central Statistical Bureau, saw 6.2 million travelers most from Germany, Poland and Lithuania — cross its borders in 2014, a 7.3 percent increase from the year before.
Meanwhile, as researchers continue to develop the idea that immunotherapy can trigger one's own immune system and attack cancer cells, science is proving that a multitude of chemical compounds including a certain enzyme in human breath can lead to early diagnosis of stomach and gut cancers.
Stephano said the hope is that this non-invasive manner to detect cancer along with other research activities in Latvia including those at the Kirchenstein Institute of Microbiology & Virology at Stradins Hospital, in Riga, will lead to early diagnosis and reduced death rates, and that medical tourism professionals will be versed to promote and assist in their execution.
Ivars Kalvins, head of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at the Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis and inventor of the drug Mildronats,” said the export of Rigvir could be an economic boon to Latvia.
“In order to export the medication to European Union countries, clinical research needs to be carried out in every country in which the product will be sold,” he said. “And, that requires major funding.”