Cancer menace in Mzuzu


The pain that the bereaved endure when death knocks is enormous, especially when such death could have been avoided.

With cancer as a menace, and particularly because there is no private specialist hospital in Mzuzu, hundreds—if not thousands—have succumbed to avoidable deaths in the Northern Region.

However, for those who escaped death such as George Ngwata, stories of fatigue, high costs of transport to Blantyre and accommodation costs in search of specialist treatment are widespread.

Ngwata: Death came knocking
Ngwata: Death came knocking

But that is a sub-plot to a story that Ngwata tells. His is a story of the convergence of life and death as he escaped death following a one year bout with lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

“Death is real. It visited my doorstep last October. Even the doctor certified me a living corpse, saying I would die the moment they give me medication. He said the medication was too powerful for my physical state. To me that was the end, and my wife’s moan was the last nail on my coffin,” says the Mzuzu-based Ngwata.

It was in April last year when Ngwata first saw signs of the lymphoma. It started as a small lump on the left side of his abdomen. He braved the pains for some time before visiting Mzuzu Central Hospital (MCH).

“They [medical personnel at MCH] scanned me and it was discovered that the lump was 8.6 by 8.8 centimetres. They referred me to Kamuzu Central Hospital [KCH in Lilongwe] for further tests. There, they said the cancer had grown by four centimetres,” he says.

Ngwata was referred back to Mzuzu. But no treatment was offered due to lack of specialist services at MCH.

“My health deteriorated. The cancer had spread across my abdomen and it became hard like a brick. The stomach was swelling. I could not lie down. I could not eat. I was only living on water. I became so weak,” he says.

Without the intervention of his workplace, this story would have been different. He was supported with roughly K2.1 million for specialised treatment in Blantyre.

He visited Blantyre Adventist Hospital 14 times in the past nine months. About K70 000 was spent for every three-day round trip to Blantyre.

He was undergoing chemotherapy, a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. He completed treatment last month and was expected to go for check up on August 26.

He says prices for his treatment were ranging from K66 000 to K109 000.

“A poor villager without any support would not have escaped death as I did,” says Ngwata, who looked healthy during the interview at the Luwinga Industrial Area. He was clad in a blue work suit.

“As of now, I am in the dark if my employer will ask me to reimburse the money or if it was just an act of benevolence,” says Ngwata, a clerk and a family man of five children and 17 grandchildren.

Ngwata might be alive. But there are some who have lost their lives due to similar illnesses.

In February this year, Malawi lost a veteran broadcaster Joyce Ng’oma to pancreatic cancer.

Her daughter, Mbachi, says she was forced to remain in Blantyre against her wish to settle in Mzuzu.

“My dream is to settle in Mzuzu. We had a dilemma. Being her main guardian I couldn’t leave her alone in Blantyre nor take her to Mzuzu. The risks were high considering that there was no cancer care specialist or facilities,” she says.

The health situation in the Northern Region is unique.

The primary and secondary services are provided at the village and district levels. But for Mzimba North, which includes Mzuzu, there is no district hospital.

This has compromised delivery of health services because they are not provided for to a desirable level, according to Dr Douglas Lungu who once served as director of clinical services and chief surgical specialist at MCH before founding his Wezi Medical Centre.

Tertiary services, where the Ngwata case falls, are provided by MCH. But the central hospital struggles to offer adequate care due to high vacancy rates and unavailability of some specialist services.

The hospital has two resident specialists instead of 30, according to MCH spokesperson Frank Banda who estimates the number of specialists at two or three.

Banda says at least four patients in need of specialist services are referred to Blantyre or Lilongwe every month.

“Referral cases include those for radiology and cancer treatment because we don’t have equipment for tests and chemotherapy. We only offer drugs,” he says.

Lungu says lack of such services in the region has seen people die with conditions that would have been treated.

“This is a very big problem for the Northern Region. We need a private hospital in Mzuzu to support those who can afford to pay and reduce dependency on government services,” he opines.

As the woes continue, the Mzuzu community is not sitting idle. They have mobilised themselves into a task force to raise funds for a modern specialist hospital.

Spearheaded by Wezi Medical Centre, the dream hospital wants to support MCH as well as help in retaining specialists who refuse to be posted to Mzuzu preferring Lilongwe and Blantyre where they can supplement their income with private hospitals.

Lungu says the new hospital will be administered as a public private hospital under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement.

A donor to help build the hospital has been identified and the group is tasked to raise K40 million for the foundation, according to task force chairperson Zohra Matundu.

She says the group raised K13 million through a fundraising dinner and concert in April which was spiced up with performances by Wambali Mkandawire, Lusubilo Band and Tiwonge Hango.

“We are organising another fundraising dinner and dance where we are seeking to raise the remaining K27 million,” says Matundu.

If constructed, the facility is expected to offer a wide range of secondary services ranging from antenatal services to general clinical care, says Lungu who is also a trustee of Dae Yang Luke Hospital in Lilongwe.

“We will also provide specialist services in general surgery, trauma, obstetrics and gynaecology and other specialities.

“We also plan to acquire latest diagnostic equipment both in radiology as well as biochemical laboratory. The centre will also attract visiting specialists from time to time for most elective surgical cases and chronic medical cases.

“The chronic diseases mostly include non communicable diseases and cancers. It will also provide a 24-hour ambulance and evacuation services for referral to external facilities,” says Lungu.

He says the hospital will be run like Dae Yang which offers services to the community at a subsidised fee.

“We will introduce appropriate advanced medical technology according to community demand which in the long run should reduce the overall cost of seeking medical treatment,” he says.

Presently, the group is in the process of compensating individuals living close to the site to kick-start the project.

When that is done, individuals such as have to travel to Blantyre in search of specialised treatment.

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