The bill on a national strategy to contain the cancer scourge is in order

Cancer has for a long time been a major public health issue in Nigeria. Ironically there is no sensible public health policy to combat the ailment. That much was revealed last week by the Senate Committee on Health at a public hearing on the National Centre for Cancer Research and Treatment Bill. Senator Lanre Tejuoso, a medical doctor and chairman, Senate Committee on Health, said cancer was the third most common cause of deaths in the country and currently afflicts about two million Nigerians while between 100,000 and 500,000 new cases are registered annually. “It is confirmed that cancer destroys the well-being of a large percentage of our citizens and it is a public health problem that affects all categories of persons,” he said.

The bill seeks to provide for the establishment of a cancer research and treatment centre for the benefit of Nigerians. When passed, the bill, among other things “will provide a holistic national strategy for dealing with cancer ailment as a serious national health agenda and the education of the public on the ailment with conservation of our national resources”.

Even though there is no accurate data to determine the number of people affected by this ailment, available statistics are such that the disease should be treated as an emergency. “I call on governments to step up their response to cancer by taking concrete actions to reduce premature deaths and improve the quality of life and cancer survival rates,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, at a recent event to commemorate World Cancer Day. He urged commitment to “design and implement effective cancer control plans”.

Cancer is an ailment where early detection and treatment can make the difference between life and death. But the high death rate from cancer in Nigeria is a measure of the state of our health care delivery system. Most Nigerian hospitals and medical centres lack the diagnostic capacity to quickly detect and treat cancer infections. This has forced several Nigerians who can afford it to travel to countries like India, the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, etc., in search of treatment for the disease.
According to WHO estimates, one-third of cancer cases are preventable while another one-third can live a qualitative life if given adequate and timely treatment.

Dr. Christopher Kolade, a member of Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) for the early detection and treatment of the disease said recently that cancer is not a death sentence but a challenge “that all Nigerians must brace up to defeat”, adding: “If we do not engage in the war to defeat cancer, then cancer will overcome us.”

The most common types of cancer in Nigeria are carcinoma of the uterine cervix and breast for women and liver and prostate cancers for men over 40 years. Cervical cancer kills far too many women yearly because of lack of awareness and resources for treatment, even when it has been shown that a simple and inexpensive vinegar test can cut down drastically on the number of deaths. Unfortunately, it does not seem as if Nigerians are paying adequate attention even when many of our prominent citizens have succumbed to the disease in recent times.

We believe that the task of saving citizens from the cancer scourge remains essentially with government which has to provide both the basic facilities to combat the disease and to create the enabling environment that can facilitate the collaboration of the private sector in tackling the menace. Increased awareness campaigns, improvements in public health and increased funding for health care initiatives – by government, donor agencies, and development partners – are all likely to lead to a decrease in the incidence of this killer disease. We urge the health authorities to take what is fast becoming a cancer epidemic much more seriously.