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Originally published Friday, April 26, 2013 at 4:08 PM

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Guest: Africa must confront cancer

Cancer is now a major and growing public-health challenge in Africa and other developing countries, writes guest columnist Kingsley Ikenna Ndoh.

Special to The Times

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ACCORDING to the World Health Organization, deaths due to cancer in developing countries outnumber the deaths attributed to HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined. About 80 percent of deaths due to cancer worldwide occur in developing countries.

I can only draw one conclusion from these tough facts: Cancer is now a major and growing public-health challenge in Africa and other developing countries. Something needs to be done fast before this ticking time bomb explodes. Unfortunately, cancer has remained at the bottom of public-health discourse in many African countries.

Most Africans have long thought cancer to be mainly a health problem that afflicts whites in the developed world. That is beginning to change. Many people outside of Africa believe infectious diseases such as HIV and malaria are the main health problem affecting Africans. That must change.

In the past decade many African countries have seen the influx of better diagnostic equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized tomography (CT) scans.

Better diagnostics revealed that cancer has extended its ugly tentacles to Africa. Many prominent Africans have died of cancer. For example, according to BBC News, the immediate past president of Ghana died of throat cancer and received most of his treatment in the United States. There are countless other examples of prominent Africans dying in foreign hospitals from cancer. These deaths have created greater awareness of cancer on the continent.

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of cancer specialists and resources to prevent and manage the disease. According to the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, India earned an estimated $2 billion from health tourism in 2012, and it is estimated that 26 percent came from Nigerians seeking medical care in India. A significant percentage of these patients suffered from cancer. A cancer diagnosis without the means to go abroad for treatment is likely tantamount to a death sentence.

In Africa most cancers are caused by infectious diseases. According to the World Health Organization, infection-caused cancers make up an estimated 40 percent of cancers in Africa.

Cervical cancer, for example, has been largely contained in most Western countries. But according to the International Agency for Research in Cancer, 242,000 African women died of cervical cancer in 2008, accounting for almost 90 percent of deaths due to cervical cancer worldwide. Africa indeed has a great window of opportunity to prevent avoidable deaths due to cancer.

It is high time that Africa paid attention. Leaders should start by budgeting more funds for noncommunicable diseases, training health workers in oncology and developing national policies and guidelines on cancer prevention and treatment. The governments should fund national cancer registries and cancer research, and ultimately invest in specialized cancer centers. Aid organizations should look toward allocating more resources to Africa to fight cancer and other noncommunicable diseases.

The story is not all gloomy. Uganda is one country setting the pace in the cancer fight. The Ugandan Cancer Institute has grown from one oncologist to 11 within a few years, thanks to the collaborative partnership between the Ugandan Cancer Institute and Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Africa has lost too many precious lives to HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. The last thing Africa needs is another public-health explosion of many more deaths from a raging cancer epidemic. It is time to disentangle its citizens from the complex web of an epidemic of preventable cancers and infectious diseases. We must turn our focus to the fight against cancer.

Kingsley Ikenna Ndoh is a doctor from Nigeria and currently at the University of Washington studying for a master’s in public health.

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