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Africa's cancer burden on the rise as deaths cross 700,000 mark

Health & Science

MERCK Foundation CEO Senator, Dr Rasha Kelej, Chairman Executive Board,  E. Merck KG and Merck Foundation Board of Trustees  Dr Frank Stangenberg-Haverkamp alongside First Lady’s from Africa during the 10th Edition of Merck Foundation Africa Asia Luminary in Mumbai, India.

Africa is on course to bear the brunt of the global cancer burden, health experts have warned as new cases crossed the 1.1 million mark and deaths rose to 700,000 annually.

Speaking during the just-ended 10th Edition of the Merck Foundation’s Africa Asia Luminary in Mumbai, India, Dr Rajendra Badwe, director of Tata Memorial Centre in India, said almost half of these cases die within 12 months of diagnosis.

“There is a need to re-evaluate standardisation of care versus standard of care,” said Dr Badwe, adding also that experience is showing a biting need to establish relevant training for oncologists to deliver quality care in these two continents.

Despite the high cancer burden, experts are worried that Africa has only three per cent of the world’s cancer treatment facilities, with radiotherapy available in just 22 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This low access to quality medical care is the largest contributing factor to the very low survival rates recorded in the continent and is made worse by late diagnosis.

Dr Frank Stangenberg-Haverkamp, chairman of the executive board of E Merck KG and Merck Foundation’s board of trustees, echoed Dr Badwe’s sentiments, noting: “I strongly believe that improved access to quality and equitable healthcare results in a nation’s wellbeing, fostering economic growth, social stability, and individual prosperity.”

He added that doing so could “transform the lives of individuals and families across developing countries by improving overall health and productivity”.

A 2020 Lancet report indicates that more than one million people in Africa will be dying from cancers annually in the next seven years, or by the year 2030, if less is done to curtail the growing burden in the continent.

Africa is also projected to account for nearly 50 per cent of the global childhood cancer burden by 2050.

To confront this concern, the conference in Mumbai brought together at least 6,000 participants from 70 countries, including First Ladies of African countries, scientists, doctors, and key stakeholders in the health sector to deliberate on how to build healthcare capacity and improve access to quality and equitable healthcare in Africa and beyond.

Dr Rasha Kelej, chief executive officer of Merck Foundation announced at least 1,700 scholarships of one-year diploma and two-year master's degrees to young doctors from 50 countries in 42 critical but underserved specialities such as oncology and cancer care, endocrinology, fertility care, rheumatology and neuroimaging.

The training, said Dr Kelej, seeks to equip specialists in the continent with relevant skills to help fight the cancer scourge.

Experts say that, despite technological progress in oncology, Africa still grapples with primary prevention and early cancer detection services, and delays in diagnosis and treatment, all of which end up contributing to the high burden of non-communicable disease in the region.

For instance, clinical examination by health workers could help reduce breast cancer by 20 per cent, while visual inspection by individuals could help reduce mortality from the same by another 20 per cent.

In Kenya, a report by the National Cancer Institute indicates that 70 per cent of cancer cases are diagnosed at advanced stages, with two out of three persons succumbing to the disease.

Also, the report shows, only 23 per cent of all cancer patients in the country have access to cancer management and treatment services.

On average, Kenya records about 47,000 new cancer cases annually. About 32,500 deaths from the disease occur every year.

Statistics by the World Health Organization show that the most common types of cancers in adults are breast, that accounts for 16.5 per cent, cervical at 13.1 per cent, prostate at 9.4 per cent, colorectal at six per cent, and liver cancer, which accounts for 4.6 per cent of all cases.

These types of cancers, doctors say, contribute to nearly half of all new cancer cases.

Poor diets, alcohol and tobacco use, obesity and physical inactivity have been faulted as major drivers of the rise in cancer cases being witnessed globally.

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