Cancer has become a major public health issue which government can no longer ignore

From superstitious beliefs which attribute the ailment to some ‘spiritual arrows’ thrown by enemies to unproven ‘miraculous’ cures, no fewer than 70,000 Nigerians die annually from cancer. The dreaded disease has become a huge burden in our country with thousands of afflicted men and women presently battling for survival.

It is not that Nigeria’s cancer statistics have suddenly become worse than those of countries of equivalent demographics. The real problem is the growing lack of capacity to deal with the health challenge. The cancer diagnosis centres in Nigeria are located mostly in teaching hospitals. Several of them don’t work. Where they work, waiting time is long. And after diagnosis, the number of qualified oncologists as a function of our population is abysmal, not to talk of availability and cost of cancer drugs and therapy.

Ordinarily, cancer screening ought to be part of a comprehensive primary health care delivery system. But we are in a country where hardly anything qualifies as a critical national emergency except it afflicts those who decide. Even at that, medical emergencies even when they afflict the most privileged, only qualify for overseas treatment. But it need not be so. Beyond the matter of medical personnel, facilities, personnel and care, tackling the cancer epidemic demands improved awareness on causes, symptoms, early detection as well as simple lifestyle and dietary adjustments.

Many Nigerians afflicted with cancer have been compelled to travel to countries like India, the Emirates, United Kingdom, etc., in search of treatment for the disease. The economic consequence of this is that it has led to so much capital flight. It is indeed curious that despite avowals by successive governments that healthcare is one of its core agenda of action it is becoming increasingly difficult to see the impact on the citizenry even with the existence of the National Health Insurance Scheme.

Further complicating the situation is the very low awareness of the scourge among Nigerians but more among women, especially rural women. Our health authorities both at the federal and in the states are yet to create the level of awareness that would bring sufferers to the danger of the cancer scourge. Instructively, the most common types of cancer in Nigeria are carcinoma of the uterine cervix and breast for women, liver and prostate cancers for men over 40 years.

Although medical experts differ somewhat as to the exact causes of the disease, there seem to be some agreement that the major cause is the habit of the people which is not helped by government policy or lack of one. For instance, while most countries are making stringent laws against tobacco use, our government seems to be encouraging it. Also, given the epileptic nature of the power sector, the use of generator has since become a necessity in most homes. Yet the carbon monoxide emitted from this power source is a serious health hazard and has been identified as a huge contributor to the cancer menace.

Overall, we believe that the task of saving the 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. 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.

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