Cancer in Africa, the new epidemic

A majority of people in Africa never see a medical professional, and  many who get cancer die at home in their villages without any pain killers. Their first choice of treament are often witch-doctors. According to professor David Kerr cancer treatment in Africa is “almost medieval” and “patients come with horrible tumors, only weeks away from death”.

Until quite recently cancer has been considered a foreign disease on the continent. There were so many other health risks which could shorten your lifespan. If life expectancy is low, few would  live to acquire diseases associated with aging or an opulent lifestyle. In addition, few people knew how to recognize the symptoms of cancer, or visit a doctor to have it diagnosed. For those who do, cancer is most of the time a death sentence.

The five-year survival rate for breast cancer is less than 50% in Gambia, Uganda, and Algeria, compared to nearly 90% in the United States. The cure rate for some childhood cancers is 80% in the UK, while in Africa it could be as low as 1-2%.  Cancer treament is very expensive even for western hospitals, and many drugs are beyond the price range that poorer nations can afford.

Improvement in health care and lifestyle means that people live longer, in Africa as in other parts of the world. Scientists believe that a huge epidemic of African cancer is on the horizon. Even if cancer isn’t a major concern at the moment, it will soon be one of the leading causes of death on the continent. In 2009 there wasn’t a single oncologist in the whole of Sierra Leone, a country of 6 million people. In other countries, such as Ghana, rudimentary infrastructure exists, a few hospitals, but not much in the way of  technical equipment, specialists or drugs.

Still image from the Al Jazeera documentary

Al Jazeera has interviewed several healers in Ghana who sell cheap cancer treatments. There is a woman whose sister died of breast cancer, who claims that her 2 dollar herbal remedy will cure the disease. There is a pastor who claims that his fifty dollar oil and prayer sessions will cure the patients. In the Africa Investigates Special  he can be seen laying his hands on the patient’s head shouting and screaming to drive out the illness. “Now you will not die” he assures her.

There are , however, simple steps that can be taken to combat cancer in Africa. Vaccines against hepatitis and HPV viruses would have prevented many cancers, if only they could be made affordable. In addition, tobacco accounts for 40 % of cancers on the continent. The tobacco industry has expanded their markets in the third world while they are being forced out of the developed world.

Regulating tobacco,  simplifying treatments, mass production of generic drugs, and many other strategies are being suggested in the links below. However, investing in health care while at the same time fighting poverty and ignorance remains a daunting task.



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