Uganda says “we can” on World Cancer Day

Guest blogger – Esther Nakkazi, freelance science journalist

Guest blogger – Esther Nakkazi, freelance science journalist

“We can – I can – get involved in cancer prevention and control”

This is the theme for World Cancer Day being promoted by Ugandan health ministry.

And this year it seems that the government is not just talking the talk, it is walking the walk with plans to provide the legal basis and funding to support a comprehensive approach to cancer control in the country.

When the 10th Parliament convenes after the May elections, the Cancer Bill will be high up on the agenda.

Its primary objective will be to establish the Uganda Cancer Institute as an autonomous agency of Government mandated to undertake and coordinate the prevention and treatment of cancer and cancer-related diseases and conduct research.

With only 25 oncologists in the whole country, Uganda currently struggles to care for the almost 30,000 people who are diagnosed with cancer every year. Speaking at a press conference at the Ministry of Health ahead of World Cancer Day, Jackson Orem, Director of the Uganda Cancer Institute, spoke of his hope of increasing survival from the current rate of 20% to 50%, through improved prevention, earlier detection and care. And he sounded confident the proposed measures would be debated as planned. “The Cancer Bill is already before the committee of health. It will be their priority in the next parliament,”he said.

With 60% of new cancer cases caused by infections, immunisation programmes will be key to cutting new cases. Cervical cancer, associated with infection with the HPV virus, is the single biggest cause of cancer death among women, with Kaposi sarcoma, associated with HIV infection, and liver cancer, associated with hepatitis also major killers.

Anthony Mbonye, the commissioner for community health services at Uganda’s Health Ministry, spoke of the government’s commitment to vaccination programmes. “Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccination against cancer of the cervix is now available across the country and girls aged 10 years can access it in all our health facilities,” he said, adding that the Hepatitis B vaccine is now part of the routine childhood immunisations, and vaccination is also available for adults in high-burden districts, and will soon be available across the country.

As an autonomous agency, the Uganda Cancer Institute will be a corporate body governed by a Board of Directors. The Bill spells out that the Institute will undertake and coordinate the prevention and treatment of cancers in Uganda, including providing comprehensive medical care services to patients affected with cancer and other cancer-related diseases, and coordinating cancer-related activities both within and outside Uganda.

The Bill also provides for the Institute to conduct on-the-job training in oncology and related fields for its staff as well as to provide public education and training on cancer.

Importantly it includes provisions for funding the Institute and its work.

Orem hopes this will be an important step to establishing a truly national cancer service. “We want every cancer patient to be diagnosed and followed up. We need to get their contacts so that they are always within our systems,” he said.

But his aspirations go beyond Uganda’s own borders. “The UCI,” he said, “will be the centre for training oncologists in East Africa in an effort to increase human resource in the region.

Grand opening of the new Ugandan Cancer Institute buildings May 2015

Grand opening of the new Ugandan Cancer Institute buildings May 2015

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