In Uganda, doctors believe they are winning war on cancer despite rising numbers

Sunday August 11 2019

Women wait for radiotherapy at Mulago Hospital in Uganda.

Women wait for radiotherapy at Mulago Hospital in Uganda. Experts in Uganda say the country remains a centre of excellence for cancer management and treatment in the region. PHOTO | AFP 

HALIMA ABDALLAH
By HALIMA ABDALLAH
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To many people, being diagnosed with any type of cancer is equated to receiving a death sentence. Not so for Dr Jacinto Amandua. He speaks about his cancer diagnosis as though it is an ordinary health problem.

“I am a beneficiary of the cancer treatment in Uganda. The services are good that is why I do not go abroad for treatment. I have lived for five years with the cancer and I see many other nationals seeking treatment in Uganda,” said Dr Amandua, a former commissioner of clinical services at the country's Ministry of Health.

Dr Amandua, who is also a senior palliative care expert, named countries like DR Congo, Eritrea and Ethiopia, whose citizens seek treatment at Uganda’s Cancer Institute (UCI). UCI offers specialised services in areas of treatment, research and prevention.

CANCER MANAGEMENT

Even though wealthy Ugandans shun UCI for treatment abroad, experts said Uganda remains a centre of excellence for cancer management and treatment in the region.

“Treatment models for cancer are equal everywhere in the world and so we are striving to maintain quality that is accessible to all calibre of citizens,” said Jackson Orem, the director of UCI.

Availability of diagnostic facilities and free access to cancer treatment has made Uganda attractive to cancer patients, according to Dr Orem. The UCI, for example, has three radio therapy machines and morphine drugs in stock.

According to data at the UCI, cancer affects all age groups, with children making up to 40 per cent of new cases. On average, UCI receives 1,700 cases annually implying that 700 of them are children. Common cancers among children occur in the developing cells like bone marrow, blood, kidneys and nervous system tissues. Burkitts lymphoma (a cancer that causes rapid enlargement of the head) is the most common in children’s. However, the causes of most children cancers remain unknown.

With only 20 oncologists, Uganda is grappling with the growing numbers of cancer cases. New cases stood at 150 per 100,000 population between 2010 and 2012. “Between 2017 and 2018, we have registered 350 new cases per 100,000 population. So there is incidence of increase in cancer in the country,” said Dr Orem.

These patients and many more who do not have access to the health systems, need diagnostics, therapeutic and rehabilitative services and only robust scientific research can control the scourge.

The mortality rate of cancer also remains high at 80 per cent.

Dr Orem explained that cancer encompasses 130 conditions, “There is no one size-fits-all method of management because these are complex conditions.

TRAINING

In a bid to grow the human resource, UCI, which was appointed East Africa’s Centre of Excellence in Oncology will enhance the management of cancer through improved research, creation of highly specialised professionals in diagnostics, treatment and care of cancer cases.

The institute is expected to start offering training at the post-graduate level in masters' programmes, doctorates and post-doctoral programmes through Makerere University College of Health Sciences.

“We have the challenges of getting human resources because medicine is wide and many people take interests in different fields,” said Dr Jackson Amone, the Commissioner of Services at the Ministry of Health.

The UCI has also established five cancer regional centres around the country. Three out of the five centres are operational and offer treatment of simple cancer-related illnesses.

Following three deaths of high-profile Kenyans due to cancer recently, Kenyan technocrats will be visiting Uganda on a study tour to learn how the country is managing its cancer programme.

The UCI has developed a cancer information guide in the form of a booklet for health workers as a means to facilitate a comprehensive cancer community programme.