Africa’s growing and neglected cancer problem: We will all suffer

July 22, 2016

by Miles A. Pomper
Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress

This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared on The Conversation
Also published by the San Francisco Gate

While infectious diseases like AIDS and Ebola have received the lion’s share of Western media attention, noncommunicable diseases, including cancers, are surging in Africa and other low- and middle-income countries. This is fueled by population growth, longer lifespans, related infectious diseases, and health and environmental factors, such as increased urbanization and smoking. Cancer, which kills one in eight people worldwide, is on the verge of becoming a global pandemic with a staggering economic toll: Cancer treatment already costs almost US$1 trillion a year.

Yet developing countries lack the resources – from machines to trained personnel to operate them – to cover more than a small portion of today’s cases, let alone the rising numbers projected for the future. About 15 African countries have no radiation therapy available at all.


Even in those few poor countries that have limited access to a radiotherapy equipment, the technology these countries are using is antiquated and less effective, from a medical perspective. Richer countries and better-off developing countries generally employ linear accelerators. These machines allow doctors to administer highly targeted doses of radiation to patients. They destroy tumors and yet limit damage to surrounding tissues.

But poorer countries have had to make do with old fashioned machines that use highly radioactive material (cobalt-60). Such machines not only provide less effective medical treatment, but also pose a security risk – cobalt 60 can be used to make a radiological weapon, such as a dirty bomb.

By helping countries acquire linear accelerators and train associated personnel, the international community therefore has the opportunity to improve public health and security simultaneously. […]

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