Dar es Salaam. Cancer patients from Malawi, the Comoros and Kenya have been crossing into Tanzania in search of radiotherapy treatment, The Citizen has learnt.
Reports of people from one African country moving to another in pursuit of radiotherapy took centre stage last week after Uganda announced it was sending 400 cancer patients to Kenya for radiotherapy after its only radiation machine broke down.
The acting Director General of the Ocean Road Cancer Institute (ORCI), Dr Julius Mwaiselage, told The Citizen yesterday that the Ugandan phenomenon was just a tip of the iceberg of the challenge facing people who need radiation treatment on the continent.
Local reports show that the radiotherapy machine at the ORCI is also severely overworked. The parliamentary Social Services Committee said recently that the machine—known as Cobalt 60—serves over 150 patients per day instead of 50.
A radiation expert at ORCI, Dr Hemedi Mianza, told The Citizen that the machine would not last long as it is supposed to rest for 12 hours but it operates virtually nonstop.
Although only a few people come from neighbouring countries for the radiation services at ORCI, the services provided by the local machine are not efficiently offered and the institute is now seeking over Sh8 billion to purchase another more robust machine.
Dr Mwaiselage said that cancer patients from neighbouring countries have been coming to Tanzania over the years but they are required to pay, although cancer treatment here in the country is free, according to the health policy.
“The numbers keep fluctuating. Sometimes you could have 30 to 50 patients in a year from other African countries coming here for radiotherapy,’’ he said, adding that some come to Tanzania because in their countries there is a long waiting time for radiotherapy treatment.
“In Kenya, for example, cancer treatment is not free and people have to wait for about a year for their turn to get treated but here, we have a maximum of three months’ waiting time. So people in Mombasa find it easier to come to Tanzania,’’ Dr Mwaiselage told The Citizen.
As cancer incidence increases in Africa, the scarcity of radiation oncology resources on the continent is becoming more severe, says a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Africa Region published in the Lancet Journal.
Reports show that for a country like Malawi, where there has never been a radiotherapy machine, their government has even set aside an external budget to allow public hospitals to request transfer of cancer cases to other countries.
An editorial in the Malawi Medical Journal titled, “The state of oncology in Malawi in 2015,’’ reads, “The much-awaited radiotherapy facilities would help increase our capacity to cure cancers (cervix, nasopharynx, oesophagus, breast, lymphomas and others).”
Malawi would ideally require three radiotherapy facilities to address current demands. Approximately 55 to 60 percent of cancer patients require radiotherapy, says the editorial.