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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cancer: Africa's emerging health epidemic

In the past, Africa’s biggest health problems were those of dealing with infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. The patterns are rapidly changing with the westernization of lifestyles. Amongst these diseases the biggest are cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. 

The health issue of cancer is real. Join us in the fight! (Photo: theoklahomaeagle.net)

My attention was caught by the  deploring situation of cancer and its associated problems, the inadequacy of treatment, management facilities and the lack of resources given the economic situation and the tiny health allocated budgets of most African Countries. Women in Uganda or Zimbabwe are only about 20% less likely to develop cancer by the age of 65 as compared to their western counterparts.


Cancer used to be identified as the “the disease of the West.” Unfortunately,  cancer will probably be called " the disease of the old world”. According to World Health Organization, there will be 16 million new cases of cancer by 2020. From these cases,  70% will be found in developing countries, with 1 million arising from Africa. Some health professionals have even coined descriptions such as “the silent killer” and “Africa’s largest health burden” to indicate the severity of the illness.

Cancers Common amongst African Women
Cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papilomma Virus (HPV). This is the most prevalent cancer amongst African women. Epidemiological studies have revealed that cervical cancer is more related to an early age at initiation of sexual activity, an increasing number of sexual partners, and other indicators of sexual behavior. 

The second cancer high on the list is Breast Cancer. Breast Cancer risk factors include menstrual and reproductive factors, an high body mass index (BMI), a family history of breast cancer, and certain genetic mutations, and to a lesser extent, high alcohol consumption, contraceptive use, and the use of certain postmenopausal hormone replacement therapies.

Other common feminine cancers in descending order of incidence include Kaposi’s sarcoma very closely associated with HIV/AIDS, liver cancer, stomach cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

 The root of the problem.
The million dollar question is, why the surge in the number of cancer cases? The answer to this question is one which is rooted in the socioeconomic changes that have come with economic development and adoption of western lifestyles. 

These causes are due to the increase in pollution in our African cities, the increase  in smoking and alcoholism, poor nutrition, a sedentary lifestyle, an increase consumption of fatty and junk foods, the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS and also the genetic component.

Gardasil  is a vaccine that prevents the sexually transmitted virus HPV that causes cervical cancer.

What’s the way forward? 
Africa is not prepared  to tackle the cancer pandemic and its burden. There is lack of an adequate number of professionals in Sub Saharan Africa in the field of oncology or the study of cancer. The resources available for cancer diagnosis and treatment are often not in proximity to the people. Also,  the few cancer hospitals are located in cities when most people reside in rural areas. 

Most cases are often diagnosed when they are at the point of no return. Only 21 out of the 53 African states have radiotherapy, which is one of the surest methods of combating this deadly threat. Due the fact that Africa is steadily developing an ageing population, cancer is more common as people reach the age of 50. This is an indicative that the number of cases are steadily on the rise. 

Since donor agencies and foreign countries concentrate the health aid on Malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, attention is deviated from cancer, making the challenge even more difficult. For example cervical cancer vaccine is estimated at $400 for three doses needed. It is clear that a very minute number of Africans can afford this. Coupled with Africa's health drain brain drain in the field of medicine, the required personnel necessary to embark on this fight are scared and too often unavailable.

The future is left in God’s hands. It is time Africans take their future in their hands. We should all join the movement in raising awareness and encouraging our people and our governments in looking into the  deadly threat of Cancer.

Africa cannot always depend on the West for solutions, including its health problems. This is why Africa needs organizations like the West African Health organization or Afrox. The battle of cancer is more complicated for the African continent because the West is also facing difficulties in this health issue. Join the Cancer fight today.