Uganda to send cancer patients to Nairobi

Saturday April 23 2016

The Heart and Cancer Centre at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE

The Heart and Cancer Centre at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE 

By Halima Abdallah and Christabel Ligami

Uganda is preparing to move its cancer patients to the Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) in Nairobi for radiotherapy treatment following the breakdown of the country’s only machine at Mulago Hospital.

Director of the Uganda Cancer Institute Jackson Orem said officials vetting the cancer patients to go for the treatment in Nairobi are in the final stages of selection, and it is expected that the patients will arrive in Nairobi soon.

“Preference is given to the patients who will optimally benefit from the radiotherapy treatment. Majority are those whose cancer is at Stage One because their chances of survival are high,” said Dr Orem.

“Consultations are still ongoing on how the government will support the patients in terms of accommodation, food and transport, but the patients will bear some of the costs,” he added.

He said the government was in the process of acquiring another radiotherapy machine to replace the broken one.

“Payment for the new machine has already been made, and it is expected that the machine will be shipped in very soon,” said Dr Orem.

However, reports say that although the government paid $494,000 for a replacement three years ago, the bunker needed to house the new machine has never been built.

The machine at Mulago Hospital was donated by China in 1995, and has been repaired several times. On July 3, 2014, the Uganda Atomic Energy Council extended its licence for one year, and on April 8, 2016, the council recommended that the machine be decommissioned. Soon after, the machine broke down.

Radiotherapy uses radiation to target and kill cancerous cells in a specific part of the body, and can be used for many types of cancer. Healthy cells recover from the damage, but cancer cells do not.

On April 19, AKUH announced that it would work with the Ugandan government to provide up to 400 cancer patients with free treatment.

 “We are committed to working with the government of Uganda to help save the lives of cancer patients in need of treatment while it works to re-establish its radiation therapy capacity,” said AKUH-Nairobi CEO Shawn Bolouki.

Uganda’s State Minister for Health Chris Baryomunsi said the government was working on how the patients will access the treatment.

 “Not all cancer patients in Mulago who require radiotherapy will need to be transferred to Nairobi. The doctors and cancer treatment experts at the Uganda Cancer Institute will carry out clinical assessments and evaluation of patients and will advise on those who must be referred,” said Mr Baryomunsi.

There are two ways of administering radiotherapy — teletherapy, in which an external beam is directed from outside to target cancers inside the body. The machine that broke down was of this kind.

The other way is brachytherapy, in which rays are directed from inside the body cavity targeting cancer close by. Two machines are available for this. This technology treats cancer of the cervix, tongue, oral cavity and other cancers of cavities.

It is estimated that Uganda has more than 200,000 cancers cases, of which 60,000 are new.  Most patients, however, visit health facilities late, when prognosis is always bad.

 “At the Uganda cancer institute, 80 per cent of the cases present with advanced disease and this is usually incurable. An alarming 78 per cent of newly diagnosed cancer patients die by the end of the year of diagnosis,” said Mr Baryomunsi.

“The government is doing all it can to ensure that management of cancer patients in need of radiotherapy is not disrupted,” he added.