Cancer: Hope at last for improved care for West African countries

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By Chioma Obinna
NEWS of the death of Professor Dora AKunyili came to most Nigerians as a rude shock. More confounding to many of them was the report that such a high profile stakeholder in the health industry died of cancer. But she was not alone as many notable Nigerians and thousands from other West African countries have died from the dreaded disease.

Shortly after her death, there were reports that her cancer was detected earlier in Nigeria but she could not initiate treatment as a second opinion abroad dismissed the earlier report authenticated here in Nigeria.

This has been the fate of many Nigerians who would have been cured of the disease but due to lack of confidence in the country’s health sector and that of other West African countries. This is no thanks to the absence of state-of-the-art modern cancer centres.

Unfortunately, in West Africa where cancer has been found to spread aggressively, lack of awareness, poor facilities, shortage of oncologists and absence of cancer centre have been the case.

According to WHO, cancer accounts for 13 percent of all deaths registered globally and 70 percent of that figure occurs in middle and low income countries. In Nigeria, about 10,000 cancer deaths are recorded annually, while 250,000 new cases are recorded yearly. It is also worrisome that only 17 percent of African countries are said to have sufficiently funded cancer control programmes, while less than half of all countries in the world have functional plans to prevent the disease and provide treatment and care to patients.

WHO indicates that the shortage of functional cancer control plans is especially alarming in developing countries, which already account for more than two-thirds of the new cancer cases and deaths each year.

Today, if you have not experienced cancer you may know a relation who either died of cancer or currently battling with the disease. It has become the disease of the moment as almost everywhere you go, you find a person with it. Some people now sees it as a designer disease while some say it is almost fashionable to have cancer. The disease is said not to discriminate; you don’t need to be old anymore before you have cancer. Even paeditrics also suffer cancer. Age is no longer a factor.

To get a cancer cure in West Africa, you will need to travel miles away from home, that is if you can afford to detect it early and buoyant enough to face the challenges of treatment and management. For decades, people of West African countries, including Nigerians, have had cause to lament the pains they go through for early cancer screening due to high cost of treatment abroad that requires visas.

Statistics show that most cancer patients from Nigeria and other countries in the region go to India, Egypt and Turkey. A minimum of 500 to 1,000 patients leave for India every month and that translates to about $2 million every month to India.

However, Nigeria and indeed the whole of West Africa can now heave a sigh of relief, as an end to the agony associated with early detection of cancer, high cost of treatment, challenges of travelling and management is presently in sight. This is courtesy of a new world class innovative cancer care facility in Accra, Ghana for their cancer related treatments.

The establishment of the centre known as Sweden-Ghana Medical Centre, SGMC, by the Swedish and Ghanaian investors will hopefully bridge the gap in cancer treatment in West African countries and in the process increase survival rates in the region.

According to officials, Sweden Ghana Medical Centre will provide cancer care services using cutting-edge techniques combined with the Scandinavian treatment touch, high productivity and competitive pricing to people from the West African sub-region even though it was established in Ghana.

It is against this backdrop that an elated Chief Executive of SGMC, Joshua Tetteh told Vanguard Features during a tour of the centre that: “Incidences of cancer are alarming and most West African countries do not have facilities to treat cancer. Apart from Nigeria and Ghana, most countries do not have anything. There is no radiotherapy in any of the countries, except Ghana and Nigeria. Even when these patients are treated in these West African countries the possibility of re-occurrence is very high because they do not have access to radiotherapy unless they travel out and spend so much money. All these SGMC is established to tackle.

“It will also help solve the regions need for private oncology services. To run an infrastructure like cancer centre, you need 24 hours power supply, an enabling environment, the atomic energy permission and other support structures because cancer treatment requires a lot of efforts and logistics.

“SGMC is well-equipped with a modern 3-D planning system. Our cancer care involves Linear Accelerator, medical oncology with out-patient chemotherapy suite and diagnostic services, “ says Tetteh.

Medical Oncologist, SGMC, Dr. Clement Edusa, revealed that since inception they have handled over 1,004 patients most of which are palliative cases. “We get a lot of late cases which cannot be cured but just managed to reduce the pain. 7 out of 10 are late. We need early cases which can be cured.”

Edusa called for increase awareness and early diagnosis in order to detect the cancerous cells quickly. He also revealed that SGMC patients outside Ghana are mostly from Burkina Faso, Togo, Sierra leone and Nigeria.

“In order to reduce cost of treatment, the governments of Burkina Faso and Togo have reached an agreement with us to support their citizens using our facility. We also run a micro-insurance programme that enables the 185,000 members of the Ghana National Association of Teachers (GNAT) send any of their members plus one family member or relative with such ailment for free treatment”. Available records showed that about 95 of the teachers have benefited from the scheme in the past nine months.

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