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How Kenya can step up defence against cancer

By Lalit Varadpande | March 8th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Our health system is capable of easing cancer burden often carried by families of infected and affected Kenyans. However, concrete measures and targeted interventions must be put in place urgently. Many families have had to foot medical expenses of their patients flown out of the country to treat the disease. Many have been left financially devastated by the scourge, which should not always be the case. So how can we respond to the disease as a country and win?

Firstly, we have a National Cancer Control and Prevention Act, a law passed by Parliament to give direction on how cancer should be managed. We have a National Cancer Control Plan, which sets forth various priorities in strategic areas like prevention and screening, treatment and diagnostic palliative care and survivorship, as well as pathology and registries and monitoring and evaluation.

Political will has identified cancer as a priority healthcare issue and we have dedicated healthcare professionals. But what can be done better? Emphasis should be given to screening of cancers, which has shown to improve survival like in cervix cancer.

We should educate our children about what cancer is and its treatment. This can be done in schools and colleges. Currently, there is lot of fear among people when it comes to cancer, which should not be the case. Oncology has made rapid progress in the past decade and even an incurable cancer can have a prolonged and meaningful life. We should make treatment affordable and accessible. No Kenyan should be denied treatment due to lack of facilities or the cost.

Regional cancer centres should be set up, where private hospitals can also play an important role in treating patients. Medical insurance should cover all possible cancer related treatment. We should ensure availability of chemotherapy and other drugs, with the long term vision being to manufacture the drugs in Kenya to reduce costs.

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We can also initiate a robust vaccination programme for cervical cancer and hepatitis B. Currently, we have about 47,000 new cases and 33,000 deaths annually. These are huge numbers for a country with a population of 50 million people. The common cancers are cervical, prostate and GI cancers. In a  survey conducted from October 25 to November 25, 2019, and included 15,427 participants from Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States, Kenya emerged as the nation with the highest awareness. This is heartening to note!

Early diagnosis plays an important role for getting the best outcomes for a cancer patient. Many patients die due to neglect, fear, ignorance or poverty and go to hospital late when cure is difficult. We should now acknowledge cancer as a growing threat to the society and take steps to address it.

Increasing awareness about cancer at the community level will help fight this deadly disease. Training family doctors to identify cancer and prompt referral to a cancer centre will greatly improve outcome for a patient. Many a times, cancer is not suspected by doctors thereby delaying diagnosis.

Radiological and pathological tests should be available at each county. A reference central lab can be established at Nairobi where sophisticated tests can be performed. Availability of affordable chemotherapy medications will also be key going forward. Development of oncology curriculum for medical students and setting up of separate oncology departments in public hospitals should be encouraged. Collaboration with oncologists within Kenya and major medical centres from the developed world will play a major role. For instance, Mediheal Hospital Group provides comprehensive cancer care. Various cancer surgeries are taken up and the department of medical oncology administers chemotherapy as per international guidelines.

The radiology and pathology department provides critical back up to the oncology department, and seeks collaboration with medical facilities within Kenya, neighbouring countries and further abroad. 

-The writer is a medical oncologist


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