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Cancer cases rising in Uganda

By Ronald Musoke

There is a steady rise in the number of Ugandans suffering from various forms of cancer, according to a cancer expert.

Dr Fred Okuku who is based at the Uganda Cancer Institiute in Mulago National Referral Hospital said in the last three years alone, the number of cancer patients shot up from 1200 to 2800 with over 60% of the patients presenting advanced cases of the diseases.

Okuku who was presenting a paper entitled; ‘The burden of Cancers in Uganda and Opportunities for Prevention,”  to a group of Ugandan health journalists in Kampala on Feb.14 during their annual conference noted that the profile of the cancer patients is changing with some cases increasingly presenting among young people.

Okuku said infections were the major cause of cancers in the country, adding that cancer of the cervix was the commonest form of cancer among women followed by breast cancer with some cases presenting among patients as young as 18 years.

“Cancer of the cervix is now coming at 18 years and not 35 years (as it used to be) because many young people are starting sex much earlier,” he said.

Okuku said the rise in the number of cases at the Institute is partly as a result of the Ugandans’ poor health seeking culture, adding that as far as Cancer literacy is concerned; Uganda has a long way to go.

“Cancer literacy is very low and it does not matter whether the patient is educated or not. Doctors, teachers, bank managers all turn up late at the Institute,” he said.

He said, of the patients who turn up at the institute with complaints, the majority report having felt discomfort in the last six months (44%). Those who say they have had some form of discomfort in the last three-six months are 34% while those who go for check up after feeling uncomfortable after less than three months are 22%.

He said over 70% of people who turn up at the Institute are normally diagnosed with cancers which are in the fourth stage.

This is stage, Okuku said, is considered very late as far as cancer management is concerned. He noted that when a cancer is discovered early, it can be taken out and cured. However, he added that this also helps in relieving the work load of the thin staff at the Institute who are already over stretched.

To tie-in with the conference theme of ‘Preventive Health’, Okuku advised Ugandans to change their attitude towards seeking for treatment when they have only fallen sick.

“Even as I speak now, I have 40 patients waiting for me and if you want your prostate removed, you will be booked for 2014,” he said.

He was however optimistic that patients were now turning up early for diagnosis.

Besides the Cancer Institute’s Cancer awareness programme that has been running over the last few years, Okuku praised the media for joining the crusade of educating Ugandans about cancer.

He however added that the media, especially the radio stations should help the health experts with air time to continue teaching the population about the importance of testing for ailments at an early stage.

“Without help from the media, it will take many more years to turn around the cancer scourge.”

The Uganda Cancer Institute is the only cancer referral centre in Uganda but it also serves patients from Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, western Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

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