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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cancer: Cost and causes of a killer ailment


Until 2007 when she was admitted to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba, Comfort Adio was hale and hearty. Before December that year, the 46-year-old woman had never been hospitalised. But what she thought was an ordinary sore on her right breast later became fatal. She was forced to consult a doctor, when the sore did not heal after two months of self-medication.
Her husband, Martin, said, ”We did not suspect that it was a serious illness. We thought that it was a sore that we could treat with an antibiotic.”
The woman was diagnosed with breast cancer at LUTH. According to her husband, the cancerous cells had spread to other organs. In September 2007, she decided to go to India for treatment. The 46-year-old teacher required N4m for surgery and other treatments in India. She died early 2008, while her husband and other relations were making efforts to raise the fund.
While Comfort lost the battle of her life to breast cancer, another patient, Adeola, has been bed-ridden by the ailment. She was diagnosed with it in 2008. Adeola initially took a lump in her left breast for granted because it was painless. When the lump persisted, she strolled to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with the cancer. She has been living in pain since 2009, when she began cancer treatment.
The women‘s cases typify the problems associated with cancer in Nigeria. Besides the two, the ailment, which was hitherto thought to be foreign, had claimed lives of prominent Nigerians. Such people included a Lagos-based lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi; a broadcaster, Mr. Yinka Craig; a popular musician, Mr. Sunny Okosuns and recently, the wife of a former military president, Mrs. Mariam Babangida, who died of ovarian cancer in a United States hospital.
These eminent Nigerians died abroad after unsuccessful treatments. Some of them, particularly, Fawehinmi, were forced to seek foreign treatments, when their conditions were misdiagnosed in the country.
Cancer patients are a pitiful sight to watch when they are in agony. A consultant oncologist at LUTH, Dr. Remi Ajekigbe, said, ”There is no pain as worse as cancer pain. It is the worst pain anybody can have.”
The World Health Organisation estimated that 7.6 million people died of cancer in 2005 globally. It stated that there were 100,000 new cases annually. The world body predicted that the figure would increase to 500,000 as from 2015.
Currently, Nigeria does not have a national cancer registry. There are no reliable data on the prevalent rate of the ailment. What the country relies on are hospital-based statistics. There are, however, indications that hospitals are seeing more cases of different types of cancer.
Ajekigbe, who confirmed this, said, ”There are increasing cases of cancer all over the world. As Nigeria is also part of the world, there is increase in the country. Here in LUTH, if we compare what we are seeing now to what we used to see in 1980s, there has been a 25 per cent increase.”
Also, studies in Ibadan showed that there had been an annual incidence of 10,000 cervical cancer cases in the South-Western part of the country.
What are the reasons for the increasing cases of cancer? One of the reasons is the increase in the level of awareness. More Nigerians, particularly, the educated, now go to hospitals for treatment rather than dying at home.
Medical experts, including Ajekigbe, said that there had been an increase in the level of awareness. Ajekigbe also said, ”We are getting more westernised. We are doing everything the Western way. We are changing our diet and importing virtually everything, including foreign diseases.”
In spite of the increase, cases in hospital may be a tip of the iceberg as cancer screening centres are not in many parts of the country.
While the Federal Government in 2009 directed its tertiary hospitals to set up screening services for breast, cervix and prostate cancers, these are not available in many secondary and primary health facilities. Where facilities are available, only a few Nigeria go for check-ups.
The Coordinator of the National Cervical Control Prevention Programme, Dr. Kin Egwunomwu, at the inauguration of the organisation in Lagos, said that some groups that were offered opportunities of screening rejected them.
Narrating his experience, he said that a church did not allow its members to undergo free cervical cancer screening, when his organisation went there. ”What we often hear from such organisations is ‘God forbid. It is not our portion,” said Egwunonwu, who is also a reverend.
Corroborating the cleric, Ajekigbe said that most cases of cancer in Nigeria were presented late. He said, ”Cancer of the inner parts of the body may not be detected early because it affects parts that are not seen. But the cancer of the outer part can be detected early. Our people report late. They say they are bewitched. They go to native doctors and pastors. They come to hospitals as a last resort.”
Also, the Coordinator of Cancer Control Programme of the Federal Ministry, Dr. Patience Osinubi, stated, ”30 per cent of cancer cases are preventable and 40 per cent are easily detectable in the pre -malignant stages.”
She, however, noted, ”Many cases of cancer are presented to hospitals at advanced stages when effective intervention is not possible. This has been one of the major reasons for the high mortality rate.”
Even when cases are diagnosed, does Nigeria have enough facilities to treat the ailment. Investigations show that currently, Nigeria has five radiography machines to serve a population of 140 million people. A radiotherapy machine is a major instrument for the treatment of cancer. A linear accelerator, an advanced form of radiography, costs N1bn, including the funds for the building and accessories.
The hospitals that have functioning radiotherapy machines include, LUTH; the University College Hospital, Ibadan; Eko Hospital, Lagos; Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, Zaria and the National Hospital, Abuja.
The five radiotherapy machines are not evenly spread in all the six s zones of the country. Three are in the South West, while one each is in the Federal Capital Territory and North Central.
Osinubi, ”In Nigeria, an average of one linear accelerator per 20 million is available when compared to 3.4 and 8.2 radiotherapy machines per million population in the United Kingdom and the United States of America respectively.
Besides radiotherapy, other treatment options available for cancer patients in Nigeria include, surgery, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy.
Management of cancer is multi-disciplinary. This, a consultant radiation oncologist at the UCH, Dr. Atara Ntekim, in an interview in Lagos, said was one of the reasons why the treatment was expensive.
Explaining treatment options in Nigeria, Ajekigbe said, ”Before anybody can be said to have cancer, the growth in any part of the body is taken by a surgeon and passed to a pathologist, who examines it under a microscope and give a written conclusion on the type of cancer the person has.” He added that the surgeon could remove the growth after diagnosis.
Other method of treatment is chemotherapy, which involves the use of chemicals that kills cells. ”They kill both cancer and non-cancer cells,” stated Ajekigbe.
The use of hormone therapy is common in cancer that is hormone -dependent. According to Ajekigbe, ”When we are treating any cancer that is hormone -dependent, we attack the hormone which the cancer feeds on. In breast cancer treatment, we give anti-estrogen hormone.”
With only five radiotherapy centres available in the county, it is obvious that the treatment of cancer is not accessible to Nigerians. Ajekigbe said that a cancer patients needed about N10m a year complete his or her treatment in Nigeria.
With 70 per cent of Nigerians living below $1 (N146) a day, most people cannot pay for the treatment from their incomes. This is compounded by the fact that the National Health Insurance Scheme, which currently covers about three million Nigeria, does not fund cancer treatment. It only covers cancer screening as well as mastectomies and prostatectomy for breast and prostate cancers.
The coordinator of the cancer control programme acknowledged this in an email sent to our correspondent. Osinubi said, ”Cancer treatment is expensive to treat any where in the world. In Nigeria, the challenge facing patients is the inability of the National Health Insurance Scheme to fund cancer treatment.”
A mammogram (an X-ray of breast cancer) goes for N3,000 - N5,000 in public hospitals in Nigeria, where the minimum wage still remains N9,500 a month.
Cancer patients normally undergo CT scan or a magnetic resonance imaging to detect organs that have been affected by the ailment. A CT scan costs between N30,000 and N40,000. An MRI, an advanced form of a CT scan, costs about N80,000 for just a part (chest for example). A patients may be required to do an MRI of three parts (the head, chest and abdomen).
Ajekigbe disclosed that a patient would require between N500,000 and N12m for chemotherapy ;and N2.5m for hormone therapy in a period of five years.
Cancer drugs are expensive considering the income an average Nigerian. For example Adriamycin, a breast cancer drug is N2,000 per bottle. Another breast cancer drug, Eprirubicin, meant for breast cancer patients with heart problem, costs N10,000 per bottle.
Investigations show that a mastectomy, which is the removal of a cancerous breast through surgery, costs about N50,000 in the country. A breast cancer patient that requires radiotherapy through a linear accelerator should be prepared to pay N100,000. A cervical cancer patient would pay N50,00 more. Chemotherapy costs an average of N100,000 per course of treatment.
The high cost of treatment is compounded by dearth of manpower. Treatment of cancer requires a multidisciplinary approach. Experts needed for treatment include surgeons, pathologists, physiotherapists, oncologists.
In the country, total number of oncologists is less than 100. A consultant oncologists, Ajekgbe, who conformed this, said, ”There are 20 consultant oncologists and 40 others that are at different levels of training.”
Also, the coordinator of government cancer control programme, stated, ”For a country of 140 million population, there is a shortage of trained personnel like radiation oncologists, therapy radiographers, medical physicists and oncology and palliative care nurses. As at the last count, three years ago, there were about 27 qualified radiation oncologists, eight medical physicists and 14 oncology nurses.”
With the high cost of treatment, does cancer afflicts the rich alone? Experts, including Ajekigbe and Ntekim, said that it was common in both the rich and the poor.
According to Ajekigbe, ”There are some cancers associated with being poor. An example is cancer of the cervix. If a girl is pretty, but comes from a poor home, she may use her beauty to get what she wants. This may lead to her being loose or promiscuous, thus exposing herself to cancer of the cervix.
”Also, a rich person, who can afford certain things like food that is rich in high cholesterol may expose himself to cancer. He may shun local foods which can protect him against cancer of the colon..”
Besides these, some habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol may also predispose people to cancer.
Explaining further, Ajekigbe said, ”You cannot place your finger on a cause when you are talking about cancer, but there are factors that predispose one to it. For example, if your parent has certain cancer, you have a higher chance of having it than a person, whose parent does not have it.”
Experts said that Nigeria had facilities for the treatment of cancer. The major hindrance, however, is that they are few. Also, there are late presentation of cases, uneven spread and the high cost of treatment.
Ajekigbe explained why some Nigerians travelled abroad to treat cancer. He said, ”We normally do not refer patients abroad. But if a patient says we should refer him abroad, we do that. But we do not on our own refer patients abroad.”
On referrals, Osinubi said, ”The advantage of going abroad is the availability of several choices of cancer treatment centers. But Nigerian patients still have to pay a lot of funds except they have dual citizenship making them eligible for national health schemes.
”Only the rich, as has been observed in Nigeria, can go abroad for treatment. The outcome of their treatment will be the same unless the cancer is detected early.”
Explaining reasons for misdiagnosis of cancer, she said that it was not peculiar to the ailment. She said, ”Several diseases have similar presenting symptoms. A patient‘s diagnosis also depends on the level of competence of the medical facility he visits.”
With more Nigerians coming down with cancer, the Federal Government has intensified efforts to combat it. The government is partnering with organisations such International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna to fight cancer.
Osinubi said, ”The partnership with the IAEA is called Programme of Action on Cancer Therapy. Within the next eight years, nuclear medicine equipment, which can diagnose cancer efficiently ,and linear accelerators, will be available in federal tertiary hospitals in all the six geopolitical zones.” The government has already paid the first $2m to the IAEA as part of the counterpart fund for the programme.
Government‘s efforts as laudable as they may be, experts and non-governmental groups said preventive measures should be intensified. The Executive Director of the African Tobacco Control Regional Initiative, Mr. Olufemi Akinbode, disclosed that only Osun State and the Federal Capital Territory had passed bill on smoking.
According to him, the bill is still in the second reading in the National Assembly. Akinbode said that tobacco-related cancer accounted for 30 per cent of cancer deaths globally.
Chronic Human Papilloma Virus can cause cervical cancer. It can be prevented through the administration of HPV vaccines. The National Cervical Cancer Control Policy states that girls from the age nine-years should be eligible for the vaccine. Adults can also get it.
The implementation of the programme is yet to start fully. But, Osinubi said, ”The Federal Ministry of Health is trying to get Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation‘s assistance to procure the vaccines at an affordable cost to sustain its inclusion in the National Programme on Immunisation.”
While Nigerians await the full implementation and success of government‘s anti-cancer measures, who will tame the rampaging monster?