Uganda to airlift 400 cancer patients to Kenya

Friday April 15 2016

Radiotherapy treatment at Mulago hospital using the old Cobalt 60 machine bought 21 years ago. PHOTO | FILE

Radiotherapy treatment at Mulago Hospital using the old Cobalt 60 machine bought 21 years ago. Uganda's only radiotherapy machine has broken down leaving over 17,000 cancer patients in jeopardy. PHOTO | FILE 


Uganda will airlift only 400 of its 17,000 cancer patients, who need radiotherapy care, to Kenya after its only treatment machine broke down last week, a government official said.

The State minister for Health, Dr Chris Baryomunsi, told Parliament that The Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi had offered to assist only 400 Ugandans who need radiotherapy care as government procures a bunker for a new machine.

Uganda has about 32,000 new cancer cases and about 55 per cent (about 17,600) of these will need radiotherapy treatment, according to officials.

“The Aga Khan Hospital has offered to treat 400 patients and we are going to arrange transport and accommodation for patients who need radiotherapy treatment,” Dr Baryomunsi said. The minister, however, said the doctors at the Uganda Cancer Institute in Mulago Hospital will assess the 400 patients to ensure that those who are badly off are the ones who benefit.

This explanation, however, provoked a barrage of responses on the floor as members of Parliament demanded to know whether the minister was condemning others (16,600) to death.

“Every life matters in this country,” Mr Muhammad Nsereko (MP Kampala Central) said. “How can you tell the people that they are going to die? Your statement will make people even die faster. Where will the rest go? Tell us so that we can tell our people to prepare for their death because they cannot go to The Aga Khan Hospital.”

Dr Baryomunsi told the House that the news of the breakdown of the cancer machine “has been exaggerated and presented in a hyperbolic manner.

"Even when the machine was there then, people were dying because the machine is not a cure,” the minister added.

Ms Alice Alaso (Serere Woman rep) interjected: “We are talking about an emergency situation, there are 17,000 people at risk, is it in order for the minister, who is a medical doctor and in whose hands we are all supposed to feel safer, to come here and handle the issue of the cancer machine as if it is a normal business?
Who is going to compensate the thousands of Ugandans dying because the machine broke down? Is it fair for this country?”

On the fate of 16,600 cancer patients who will not be flown to Nairobi, the minister advised them to go for palliative care or use strong painkillers, especially morphine (an analgesic drug used medicinally to relieve pain). He blamed social media for creating the crisis at Mulago and insisted that “there is no cause for alarm.”

The minister was answering queries on the crisis created by the breakdown of Cobalt 60 machine at the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI), particularly from enraged members across the political spectrum, who accused the government of negligence and abandoning patients who need radiotherapy treatment.

The matter was raised by Mr Eddie Kwizera (MP Bufumbira East), who chairs the Natural Resources Committee. The MP informed the House that his committee had met officials from the Atomic Energy Council, who informed them that they had issued red flags in 2013, but were ignored and that that there was no need of a new bunker.

Mr Paul Mwiru (MP Jinja East), demanded that the House puts an embargo for government officials going for cancer treatment abroad until the new machine is installed at the UCI.