Cancer cases double in five years, says UCI

Experts say the number of patients at the Uganda Cancer Institute, which in 2015 stood at 4,000 compared to 7,400 in 2020, is expected to rise further. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Cancer causes. Some of the causes and risk factors for cancer include tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption, minimal physical activity, increased age at birth of first child, treatment with hormone replacement therapy, family history of cancer, and HIV/Aids infection.

Fourteen-year-old Samuel Ochom is completing his cancer treatment and hopes to return home this year following his fast recovery.

“I came to the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI) in November last year with my stepmother. The doctors found that I had lymphoma (a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s germ-fighting network) and I was enroled for treatment,” he told this reporter at New Hope Children’s Hostel in Kawempe, Kampala.

The facility, under Kawempe Home Care, provides accommodation and other psychosocial support to children in need. Ochom is from Kumi District.

“My stepmother stayed for a short time and she went back to the village in Kumi. I stayed at UCI with one boy for one month, then they brought me to Kawempe Home Care. Here, they give us food, beds and transport to UCI for treatment,” he said.

On Monday, UCI management reported that the number of cancer cases handled annually at the facility had doubled over the last five years, and that children are contributing 10 per cent of the new cases.

The number of patients handled in 2015 stood at 4,000, but in 2020, it shot up to 7,400 and it is expected to rise further, according to Dr Nixon Niyonzima, the head of research at UCI. 

The increases are coming from high numbers of women presenting with cervical and breast cancers, and men with prostate cancer, cases of lymphoma in children, among others. 

Dr Niyonzima said the survival rate among the patients is low because most of them come at advanced stages. 

Dr Jackson Orem, the UCI director, said the infrastructure and human resources to handle patients are limited.

“The incidents of cancer are going up and the number of new cases is also going up. That means people who used to be hesitant about coming out to be tested or treats cancers are now coming out. There is probably something in the community which is driving up cancer cases,” Dr Orem said.

“We need to hype our game [the fight against cancer] and that requires money,” he said.

The UCI director said cancer prevention is still a challenge because of the limited involvement of politicians and other policymakers, in addition to limited resources.

“Unlike other diseases such as malaria, putting up infrastructure, equipment and human resource to handle other diseases is quite easy, but when it comes to cancer, it is very different. We are going to have four regional cancer centres in Mbarara for western Uganda, one in Mbale for the eastern region, one in northern Uganda and another one in West Nile,” Dr Orem said.

“By 2026, we should have the four regional cancer centres. But as I speak, we have only broken ground for the one in Gulu, and it is the only one for which we have resources. We also need resources for the other three,” he added.

Members of Parliament on Monday toured UCI on a fact-finding mission to determine how to improve cancer care and hype the prevention drive in the country.

The Koboko Municipality MP, Dr Charles Ayume, said although UCI had made significant progress in improving quality of care, there was an urgent need to address the overflow of cancer patients at the facility. 

“Cases we have seen are patients who have come from [as far as] Obongi, Moroto, Kabale and all over the country. The patients on radiotherapy or chemotherapy have to return to the hospital for treatment after every two weeks or one month. When you look at transport costs, what do they do? They have to take refuge within the premises of UCI,” he said.

Some patients told legislators that they had spent more than four months at the facility, and many of them did not have where to stay as they wait for the treatment schedule. 

The institute works with partners such as the Palliative Care Association of Uganda (PCAU) to provide accommodation, feeding, and other basic necessities to patients in need.

But the PCAU announced earlier that the financial challenges brought by Covid-19 pandemic and limited support from the government have forced some of the operators to scale down on their activities due to the inability to sustain workers and care for the patients.

But Dr Orem said steps were underway to decentralise cancer care in the country.

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja did the ground-breaking for the regional cancer institute in Gulu. The information from UCI also indicate that care is already being given at cancer centres in Mabarara and Arua in the respective regional referral hospitals, but the scope of care is limited.