This week, countries marked World Cancer Day. One of the key ideas of this day is centered on how to work together so that cancer is no longer a death sentence in Africa; simply because of where one lives.
Against this backdrop, much is still desired in countries such as Ethiopia, where there is only one cancer center for 100 million inhabitants, yet the disease is almost always deadly, leading to more stigma around cancer than around HIV/AIDS.
Tanzania is not spared though. With over 55,000 patients being diagnosed with the disease annually in the country, only about 13,000 of them report to health facilities for treatment, according to data from the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children.
Continentally, the picture is not rosy. Each year, about 750,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa develop cancer and over half a million die from the disease. The number of new cancer cases is predicted to swell to over a million every year within the next five years in the region.
Due to limited availability of screening, laboratories, pathologists, and oncologists, cancers diagnosed in Africa have a much higher mortality rate than in other parts of the world.
Without diagnostics, clinicians are unable to effectively screen for cancer, diagnose the disease and develop care plans. This results in the majority of cancer patients not being diagnosed until they reach an advanced stage that is not curable, making palliative care, when it even exists, the only option.
Sub-Saharan African countries simply lack the personnel, training, resources, and infrastructure to respond to the cancer challenge.
At the end of 2017, three organizations (American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), American Cancer Society (ACS) and Novartis) joined forces to strengthen the capacity of frontline health providers, complementing work already happening on the ground to improve access to cancer diagnosis and treatment in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Malawi.
ASCP is now building capacity for analysis of cancer tissues using techniques that can employ the use antibodies to detect proteins in sections of, let’s say the liver etc. This is known as Immunohistochemistry.
This is going on in seven hospital laboratories, and ACS is providing training in the handling of biopsy samples and in administering chemotherapy.
Funding from Novartis is supporting this work to help build the infrastructure needed to improve treatment outcomes in these countries.
Together, ACS and ASCP trained more than 80 healthcare workers in diagnostics laboratories and facilities administering chemotherapy care in 2018.
This is one of the typical examples of how organizations across sectors can come together to solve a grand challenge in global public health.
We can also build on highly successful efforts to combat infectious diseases, such as HIV, that have delivered winning models for bringing early screening and treatment services to people in hard-to-reach locations. We can and should do the same for cancer.
People with cancer in Africa are voiceless and dying silently. The disease contributes to massive human suffering, which goes largely unreported.
The Ebola epidemic that took 11,000 lives was in the news for weeks while cancer, by comparison, kills nearly 500,000 Africans each year, and is ignored in the media.
The global health community needs to come together and speak out for cancer patients. Let’s join forces so that cancer is no longer a death sentence in Africa.
Authors’ bios: Milner Chief Medical Officer, American Society for Clinical Pathology. Meg O’Brien is the Managing Director, Global Cancer Treatment, and American Cancer Society. Nusser is Head of Novartis Social Business (NSB).