By DANN OKOTH
In his surgical career spanning over two decades, brain surgeon Patrick Akuku has seen many cancer patients. But today, the surgeon is a worried man. He is worried about the rapidity with which the disease is afflicting young people.
“We are seeing a situation where brain tumours which were common in people in their 50s now manifesting in people as young as age 20-25,” says Akuku, a senior lecturer at the Department of Surgery, Division of Neurosurgery at the School of Medicine at the University of Nairobi.
“Is it just the changing lifestyle that is exposing young people to such cancers? Is it the environment or are they predisposed to something more sinister?” poses Akuku.
Dr Akuku’s work and that of other medics in Kenya suggest there is a strong link to the rising number of people affected by some cancers in Kenya with HIV. This development greatly complicates response towards HIV.
“We see 20-30 cases of gliomas a month, which initially constituted elderly people of 50 years and above. But increasingly three to five of these cases are now young people in their late twenties and early thirties,” says Akuku who attend to such patients at Kenyatta National Hospital.
“Although no conclusive research has directly linked HIV with glioma, it is easy to suspect the former because many of the young people also have HIV.” Cancer is one of the deadliest opportunistic infections in HIV patients.
In what scientists now call the “axis of evil” between HIV and cancer, a higher percentage of patients who developed certain cancers were also found to be HIV positive, with more than half having no prior awareness of their HIV status.
The cancers associated with HIV include brain tumours such as gliomas (astrocytoma, oligodendroglioma and glioblastoma.) Others include Kaposi’s sarcoma, cervical cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and bone marrow cancer.
Cancer statistics from Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) show that 62 male patients who visited public hospitals in Nairobi County in 2011 had brain tumours, representing nearly three per cent of the total number of cancer patients, with 49 women reporting to the facilities with the same malignant tumours accounting for about two per cent of the cases.
GZ Mutuma, Kemri principal research officer, says cancer is increasingly manifesting itself in HIV patients — fuelled by lack of early testing and treatment and changing lifestyles that exacerbate the development of certain malignant cancers.
“Most patients who turn up with certain cancers are also HIV positive. In Kaposi’s sarcoma and lymphomas, the probability is anything between 70-90 per cent,” says Dr Mutuma, who is also head of Pathology and Oncology Research Unit at the institute.