guardian.co.uk, Monday 20 June 2011 08.00 BST
Cancer kills more people worldwide that AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria together – but most of Africa doesn’t even have a word for it. So where should Africa’s medical profession start in the bid to increase screening?
There are more than 200 dialects spoken in Africa, but most of them have no word for “cancer”, and this despite the fact the disease kills more people worldwide than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria together, and the burden is particularly acute in the developing world.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women here, exacerbated by the lack of reproductive health information for women and delayed access to treatment in rural areas.
In many parts of Africa, there is a “stigmatisation that cancer is not a word but rather a death sentence,” says David Kerr, president of the European Society of Medical Oncology. The continent needs a strategy, he says, for vaccination, screening, treatment and awareness, all of which will need time to take effect. “If we started vaccinating all girls in Africa today, we would have an impact in 20 to 25 years.”
We’ve been discussing ways to prevent the disease in the developed world, but is this fair given that 86% of cases occur in poor countries? “It’s often impossible to treat those women [in Africa] other than with painkillers,” says Kerr. All too often, when patients go to health services, the stage of their cancers is too advanced.