By Esther Nakkazi
Many years ago it was a vibrant facility credited with discovering new cancers and developing novel treatment regimens for cancer patients from all over the east African region.
Today, its buildings are dilapidated and without reliable electricity, clean water, adequate medication or treatment supplies.
Its few cancer specialist staff headed by Dr. Jackson Orem see over 10,000 patients a year, most of them with infection related cancers. The diagnosis is usually a death sentence.
Now the number of cancer patients has increased astronomically, fueled by the HIV epidemic, with mostly infection-related cancer ravaging two vital groups of people; children under the age of 12 and middle aged adults.
Kaposi’s sarcoma is rampant in adults and Burkitt’s lymphoma in children- both disfiguring, infection-related malignancies with abysmal survival rates due to lack of access to early diagnosis and treatment.
But that is to change after the collaboration between the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, USA, and the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI).
The UCI/Hutchinson Center Cancer Alliance, the first international collaboration between U.S. and African cancer centers, will expand rapid diagnosis and effective treatment to dramatically improve Uganda’s cancer survival rates from 10 percent to 90 percent in the next three years, said Dr. Lawrence Corey, the president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The partnership that began in 2004, to work together to better prevent, detect and treat cancer has already produced seven cancer specialists after a year’s studies at the oncology fellowship program at the Hutchinson Center in the US.
Now with a $500,000 grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) the Hutchinson Center is to construct the first American cancer clinic and medical-training facility in Africa.
“The burden of cancer will increase, we want long term partners which also means that we need to create better infrastructure with the space to do world class research,” said Dr. Corey.
The centre also turns into the ‘Uganda Program on Cancer and Infectious Diseases (UPCID),’ as a joint effort to provide first-rate cancer care in Uganda saving an estimated 6,000 lives each year.
“Every patient is a learning opportunity and research will help us in understanding cancer of the next generation,” Dr. Corey Casper, associate member of the Hutchinson Center’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division.
UPCID will benefit the world by identifying new infectious causes of cancer, new ways to prevent infection-associated cancers and new ways to treat such cancers with non-toxic drugs, avoiding the need for chemotherapy.
“It is an important model, which will set standards with support services- diagnosis, laboratory support, care and training,” said Dr. Casper.
Although there are great research advances in the developed world, little is known about infection related cancer, which is common in Africa.
Infectious diseases contribute to about 20 percent of to 25 percent of the world’s cancers. Human papillomavirus is the main cause of cancer, which remains the second most common cancer in the world, with about 500,000 new cases ad 250,000 deaths each year. HPV is 98 percent effective in preventing cancers.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that infection related cancers are growing killing about 1.5 million people around the globe.
The UPCID joint effort will study the intersection between infections and cancer by promoting research aimed at pathophysiology, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of infection-related cancers in Africa.
Millennium Development Goals;
Although cancer already kills more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, it is off the targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and it is rising rapidly as incomes improve and people live longer and adopt western lifestyles.
Serigne Gueye, president of the African Organization for Research and Training in Cancer (AORTIC) based in Dakar, has said that the most damaging omissions have been not so much in the agendas of international organizations, but in Africa itself.
According to Gueye the problem has so much been a lack of awareness of cancer among Africans and lack of action by governments, but it is also the case that international agencies have mostly lacked practical strategies for tackling cancer as the focus has been on communicable diseases.
The solutions lie in training and research networks like the Uganda Cancer Institute and Hutchinson Cancer Centre Alliance.