Cancer in Africa 2018

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One of the biggest issues in the African medical sphere is the detection and treatment of cancer. While the western world knows modern cancer detection and treatment methods, Africans still suffer from a lack of both.
Another issue to contend with is, once you are diagnosed, how do you treat when you don’t have access to radiotherapy or chemotherapy services? This means that for thousands of Africans, knowing you are going to die might be worse than not knowing at all, then being subjected to the knowledge of cancer without treatment opportunity.

Against this stark reality is the latest discovery of a blood test that will make cancer detection quicker, cheaper, and simpler. However, what will that hope to do in Africa?

Let’s take a look at cancer treatment in Uganda. If you are rich, you can get treatment in Kenya or India, if not, well you will have to wait in line to use the only Cobalt 60 radiotherapy machine that was inaugurated this month, replacing a malfunctioned machine that went out of operation in 2016. This is the only radiotherapy machine that serves a national population of 40 million people. Even if the machine can perform a dose of treatment in 77 seconds, it won’t matter to those waiting in line. Since the 77 seconds do not factor in calibration and maintenance. It is located in Kampala, which makes it a 450 km journey for civilians living in the North and a 200 km journey for those living in the east or west of Kampala. When you consider that Uganda’s road infrastructure is not as advanced as Europe’s, you will realize that these distances are critical for most cancer sufferers living in the provinces. Radiotherapy is free in Uganda, but it only constitutes one arm of cancer therapy.

Add to the distances involved the costs of cancer treatment, a single dose of chemotherapy can cost anywhere from $85 to $280 for the regular therapies and does not include emerging therapies (biological) being tested in first world countries. In many cases the hospital stock of chemotherapy is depleted, so patients have to find alternative sources from private suppliers, bringing the drug with them to the clinic for treatment.

Within all this confusion, one island of solidarity and hope remains. The Uganda Cancer Institute is considered as a center of excellence in the region and receives around 7,000 new patients every year, and up to 37,000 return visits. Patients to the clinic come from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Burundi, and even some parts of Kenya and Tanzania.

However, the center is only one, and Ugandan physicians hope that the country will receive more machines to cope with the load, reducing lines and easing patient suffering. According to Dr. Jackson Orem, a UCI Oncologist, the globally accepted ratio is 1:250,000, so Uganda would need 80 machines to cope with the load. He doesn’t even dream of that scenario, stating that even four machines spread across the country would be more than enough to spread the burden on both population and medical teams.