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Cancer Is Killing Millions, So Why Is Everyone Quiet?

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By Anne Kiruku

October is traditionally the breast cancer awareness month; despite this effort, the truth is that the threat posed by breast cancer remains as real today as ever.

Annual campaigns during this month include activities to raise awareness of the risks associated with breast cancer, the importance of early screening and detection, and treatment options available to both women and men diagnosed with any of the many forms of breast cancer.

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Sadly, the awareness programmes were spearheaded by non-governmental organisations, the media and well-wishers; there was little, if any, participation by relevant government agencies.

Breast cancer is a growing health problem in sub-Saharan Africa, and has now surpassed cervical cancer as the leading cause of death among women in the East African region. The disease does not discriminate, afflicting rich and poor, educated and illiterate, young and old. Men, too, have not been
spared.

The menace is compounded by poverty and illiteracy among a majority of women, especially in rural areas and slums. In sub-Saharan Africa, breast cancer is responsible for one in four diagnosed cancers and one in five cancer deaths in women. Despite its emerging public health significance, incidence rates are still generally low in Africa at below 35 per 100,000women in most countries as compared to 90-120 per 100,000 women in most European and North American countries.

Indeed, cancer has long been neglected in developing countries, overshadowed by the struggle against more acute threats like malaria and Aids. But many nations across the continent have made remarkable progress against infectious diseases once thought too daunting to tackle, more people are living long enough to develop cancer, and the disease is gradually coming to the forefront. Given the strides poor countries have made against other health problems, they should also be able to improve the
treatment of cancer.

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The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020, more than 1 million cancer cases will occur annually in sub-Saharan Africa. According to WHO, breast cancer is the most common cancer worldwide and the second leading cause of death among women. One out eight women will be diagnosed with
breast cancer in their lifetimes. Worldwide, at least 7.6 million people a year die from cancer, and 70 per cent of those deaths occur in poor and moderate-income countries such as the EAC countries.

While it is commendable that the month of October has been set aside to raise awareness on the threat posed by cancer, more must be done to bring forth real and workable solutions to the problem. Merely setting aside a breast cancer awareness month will not bring an end to breast cancer. And while early detection is good, educating women on preventive measures is asure way of lowering breast cancer occurrence.

It is now evident that there are certain risk factors that precipitate breast cancer attacks and which governments must be proactive in highlighting during awareness programmes. It is prudent for governments to educate the masses on such breast cancer risk factors as gender (being female), family history, alcohol and tobacco use, being obese or overweight, and exposure to oestrogen hormones through contraceptives. There are lifestyles changes that women have adopted that favour higher
incidence rates and these should similarly be highlighted.

One of the key areas that governments can strengthen in this war is public-private partnership. Formidable partnerships between the concerned government agencies and private corporations can go a long way in raising awareness, improving screening and diagnosis, and even obtaining equipment
and drugs for treatment.

In this regard, regional governments should ensure that public hospitals are installed with the latest mammography machines to enhance early detection and diagnosis of the disease. It is the role of governments to ensure enough oncologists are trained and retained to help in this fight.
This entails reversing the brain drain that has haemorrhaged our institutions of most trained health personnel, who leave for greener pastures.

Increasing budgetary allocations for health ministries is a key plank toward success in overcoming cancer. Setting up more cancer research centres in the region and sufficiently funding them will further help to localise methods of dealing with the disease. Just like the region has firmly dealt with communicable diseases, that same weight should now be accorded non-communicable diseases.

East African News Agency

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