Increasing urgency and resources in the fight against cancer

In recent times, social media platforms have been flooded with discussions about the possible emergence of a cancer epidemic in our nation, prompting investigations into the underlying causes of the increase in cancer-related deaths.

This followed a social media post by the Director of Information and Publicity of the National Resistance Movement, Mr. Emmanuel Ddombo, his X account.

“In a period of 6 months, I have lost more than 30 people, whether family, friends or acquaintances, to cancer. Some of them are religious leaders, high-ranking public officials or ordinary people, and they all die younger! This is a bit unusual! “Do we have a cancer epidemic in Uganda?” Mr. Dombo’s post reads.

While verifying the precise statistics mentioned in Mr Dombo’s post may be challenging, a first-hand visit to the Uganda Cancer Institute located at the top of Mulago Hill confirmed the worrying reality of escalating cancer cases. The institute’s hallways were filled with patients waiting for specialized care, painting a grim picture of the growing burden of cancer in our communities.

What draws attention at the Cancer Institute are the numerous patients waiting in the various specialized clinics of the Cancer Institute.

Despite the high number of patients, I wish to applaud the Board of Directors and Director of the Uganda Cancer Institute for improving patient flow and the working environment with the resources currently available. Unlike in the past, when patients with various types of cancer were seen lying in the complex and on the terraces, patients now have clean and tidy waiting curtains.

In the radiotherapy department, patients can now receive their treatment dose as scheduled as the government has invested in three linac machines, the latest technology in delivering radiotherapy treatments. The institute aims to phase out the use of Cobalt 60 radiation machines, which are difficult to maintain and service and pose an environmental risk of radiation emission once their source has failed.

However, the institute is still grappling with intake space and an inadequate budget for cancer drugs and supplies. Many patients who should be admitted are not admitted and some have to stay in the section where the institute has improvised tents for patients while they wait for their appointments with their oncologists.

In a sobering conversation with Dr. Jackson Orem, director of the UCI, it was revealed that newly diagnosed cancer cases increased from 6,000 to 7,000 in a single year, underscoring the seriousness of the situation. Furthermore, the institute’s annual budget of Sh15 billion falls short of the estimated needs of Sh21 billion, aggravating the problem of drug shortages.

To eliminate the challenge of floor boxes in the currently congested admission wards, the Cancer Institute needs a budget allocation of approximately Sh57 billion to be able to complete a seven-level ward complex whose construction is currently underway. So far, the institute has spent Sh12 billion on a structure whose total contract amount amounts to Sh69 billion. A silver lining for cancer patients are the regional cancer centers UCI is developing in Mbarara, Arua, Mbale and Gulu to help prevent patients from having to make long trips to the capital Kampala for care and treatment. .

Furthermore, the imminent completion of the East Africa Care Center of Excellence promises to increase treatment facilities and research capabilities, heralding a new era of comprehensive cancer management.

However, as the government plays its role in improving care and treatment infrastructure, we as citizens of Uganda have a responsibility. This non-communicable disease is largely associated with our lifestyle.

Despite known cancer risk factors including lifestyle, infections and genetics, Ugandans, especially young people, continue to abuse carcinogenic substances such as tobacco, shisha and alcohol, as seen in the various meeting places in the country.

The Ministry of Health has introduced preventive interventions such as immunization against hepatitis B and human papillomavirus (HPV), but uptake levels leave much to be desired. Furthermore, to increase physical activity, the Ministry of Health has been pushing for weekly physical activity, but still, the adoption rate of these exercises remains low. In the latest move to boost early cancer detection, the ministry is expected to introduce mandatory prostate cancer screening for all men aged 45 and over.

The battle against cancer requires concerted efforts from all stakeholders, from policymakers and healthcare providers to individuals in our communities. With adequate funding, strategic interventions, and a collective commitment to prevention and early detection, we can stem the tide of this disease.

Mr. Emmanuel Ainebyoona is the Senior Public Relations Officer at the Ministry of Health.