Major stakeholders could do more to stem the scourge

On 4th February, Nigeria joined other countries to commemorate this year’s World Cancer Day, drawing attention to the growing rate of the chronic disease and the corresponding number of deaths it has caused in the country. In less than seven years, Nigeria’s burden of cancer has climbed by over 300 per cent with more people coming down with the health challenge. In 2017, the then Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, said about 200 Nigerians lost their lives every day to the scourge, with women bearing most of the disease burden.

Although incidence of cancer has been on the increase in many regions of the world, mortality is relatively higher in less developed countries like Nigeria due to the lack of access to treatment facilities, and late diagnosis, among others. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), estimated incidences for the top five commonest types of cancers in Nigeria are: breast cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and liver cancer in that order. These cancer types and the other less common kill about 80,000 Nigerians every year.

With data showing that the cost of cancer treatment and management is not in sync with the income of most Nigerians suffering from any type of the disease, the government and other stakeholders must put a framework in place to encourage early diagnosis and access to affordable treatment and management. This, it is believed, would prevent late stage diagnosis as well as help those suffering from the scourge to get proper treatment or management without them worrying over who pays the bill. Recent data showed that about 72 per cent of cancer patients in Nigeria pay out of pocket for their care; an action not in tandem with reality since many are unable to afford it. For instance, a mastectomy typically costs around N250,000—an amount far beyond the reach of most patients.

While the alarming rate of death from cancer points to the state of medical institutions in Nigeria, it is important for critical stakeholders to understand the danger the disease poses to the future of our country. It is bad enough that cancer is a terminal disease, it is worse when most Nigerian medical centres lack the diagnostic capacity to quickly detect and treat cancer infections. That should encourage discussions on how to fashion both preventive and curative solutions at all levels of the society.

It is good the country’s healthcare system is tilting towards Universal Health Coverage (UCH) with the establishment of the Basic Health Care Provisions Fund (BHCPF) and health insurance schemes at both the national and state levels. There is a need to inculcate cancer care into all UHC programmes since poor Nigerians cannot pay out of pocket. This framework must ensure Nigerians, irrespective of location, get unfettered access to healthcare services for diagnosis, treatment and management of cancer, while the government sets aside from the insurance pool, funding to tackle their challenges. Cancer is preventable and treatable during its early stage, and Nigerians deserve this.

We believe that the task of saving its citizens from the cancer menace 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 scourge. 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. Nigerians themselves must also begin to imbibe the culture of regular medical check-ups so they can commence treatment of any diagnosed ailment promptly before it gets too late.