Cancer in Africa: Health Experts Aim To Curb Potential Epidemic

It seems like cancer should be the least of the health worries in most of the countries on the African continent, where communicable diseases are the leading cause of death and the life expectancy in more than half of the countries is under 50 years.

Compared with those of Western countries, cancer rates in the region are relatively low. But the prognosis for cancer in Africa looks grim: In sub-Saharan Africa, there were 582,000 new cancers diagnosed in 2002, and 412,100 people died from the disease. If no interventions are put in place, it’s expected that the number of new cases diagnosed will rise to 804,000 and mortality will reach 626,400 by 2020.

The reasons why vary: Skyrocketing rates of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/AIDS have led to a rapid increase in the incidence of Kaposi sarcoma and other AIDS-related cancers; risk factors such as obesity and alcohol use are on the rise, affecting cancer and other noncommunicable diseases that share these risks; and there is a worrisome escalation in smoking rates among Africans, a trend that, if it continues, is sure to lead to a glut of tobacco-related cancers.

“I was taught in medical school that cancer is not a problem in Africa. But that is a myth,” said Twalib Ngoma, M.D., executive director of the Ocean Road Cancer Institute in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “If we don’t do something now, [cancer rates are] going to increase. We should not be complacent just because we find that infections are more of a problem now.”

Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, July 24, 2007. Read the full story online.