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Why cancer epidemic must be a 2017 poll agenda

By David Makumi | October 14th 2016


Several months ago, a patient with fairly advanced pancreatic cancer shared his fears with me.

Apart from fears regarding his family, finances and his impending mortality, he was afraid that he might not make it to 2017 "to vote out politicians who have neglected cancer."

Pancreatic cancer, unlike breast or colon cancer, does not have any screening modality, nor does it present clear-cut early symptoms.

Majority of pancreatic cancers worldwide are diagnosed at an advanced stage and tend to have poor outcomes as was the case with this gentleman.

Politics matter to all of us, including those suffering from cancer. Patients, cancer advocates and healthcare professionals know all too well that allocation of national and county resources follows a political process.

That we are already in election mode is not in doubt. What we have not seen are substantive issues on the political agenda of those seeking elective positions at all levels.

Putting cancer at the centre of the national political discourse would, therefore, be a good start. This is not just because of the enormous financial burden associated with cancer, but because of the number of deaths, now approaching 100 daily.

Kenyans, regardless of party affiliation, would want to see cancer included in the manifestos of all political parties with detailed plans on how to tackle the problem once in power.

One of our mistakes as a country is to approach the disease as a purely medical problem while ignoring the role of socio-economic and political dynamics in determining who will live or who will die from cancer. All aspects of cancer control, from tobacco legislation to advertisements of junk food are affected by public policy and legislation.

Politicians and government technocrats play a significant role in setting the legislative and policy agenda as well as influencing government spending priorities. A significant investment should also be made in cancer research.

Nearly one in every four cancer cases in Kenya and in most of sub-Saharan Africa are caused by infectious agents such as viruses and bacteria, yet there is very little or no research in this area and no designated State funding.

This is despite the fact that research has potential to turn the tide against some of the cancers associated with infections like cervical, liver and some stomach cancers.

Our politicians should appreciate that adequate funding of a comprehensive national cancer control programme, free from the politics of devolution, will not only save lives but also money.

Cancer civil society groups have done a good job creating cancer awareness with limited resources. But they, too, must guard against petty politics and demonstrate transparency so as to maintain the strong bonds they have cultivated with cancer patients over the years.

The country shares collective guilt of abandoning patients to herbalists, medical tourism agencies, multi-level marketers of nutrition supplements and televangelists.

Our lawmakers should move with speed to pass strict legislation to regulate all entities who only seek to profit from this terrible disease.

If we are to save lives, then we have moral responsibility to demand concrete plans.

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