Sometimes, ignorance, or lack of knowledge, is regarded as better than being knowledgeable. The assumption is that a person is happier when they are unaware of unpleasant realities.
However, ignorance ceases to be bliss when it comes to a person sitting on signs and symptoms of a life-threatening disease whose treatment is readily available at medical facilities. And that is the case of cancer in the country.
Oncologist Dr. Leo Masamba says over 75 percent of people who go to the hospital with cancer do so when the disease is already advanced, a situation which makes it difficult to treat and which reduces chances of cure.
“Every cancer, whether diagnosed early or late, has a treatment. However, to cure cancer, it is important to get treatment in early stage,” he says, adding that most cases of cancer in Malawi are detected late.
Masamba cites reasons such as people’s lack of awareness as well as ignorance of some of the medical terms of cancer symptoms and signs. Also, he says there are others who believe herbal medicine is a cure to every ailment they may have, including cancer.
As one way of closing the knowledge gap on cancer, various organisations in the country are sensitising people about the disease and arranging screening opportunities for the public whereever possible.
Women’s Coalition Against Cancer (Wocaca) is one organisation doing community advocacy and sensitisation with gatekeepers, opinion leaders, families and other stakeholders as one way of narrowing the awareness gap and making people aware cancer treatment is available in health facilities.
“We also have media advocacy where we usually have interfaces with the media to help them understand the burden of cancer in Malawi so that the message is carried widely. Another focus area is patient advocacy where we look at the needs of patients,” says Wocaca executive director Maud Mwakasungula.
She adds that Wocaca is also involved in policy advocacy where it works with policy makers on policy formulation and review in relation to cancer and other non-communicable diseases.
Recently, Cancer Survivors Quest (CSQ) also organised a two-week cervical cancer screening exercise in Bangwe Township in Blantyre as part of raising awareness of the disease and other issues relating to it.
Think Pink Malawi, an initiative founded by breast cancer survivor Blandina Khondowe, holds annual awareness walks to bring together women and encourage them to go for breast and cervical cancer screening. The initiative is in its sixth year.
Last month, Minister of Health Atupele Muluzi launched Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine set to protect adolescent girls aged nine to 14 from suffering from cervical cancer.
“The Malawi government is introducing this vaccine as a means of providing protection to girls against cervical cancer in line with the recommendation by World Health Organisation (WHO). Hence, let’s ensure that our future mothers receive the remedy,” he said.
According to National Cervical Cancer programme manager Twambilire Phiri, cervical cancer accounts for 45.4 percent of all cancers in women. And Muluzi indicated that in 2018 alone, 4 163 new cases were diagnosed and 2 879 died from cervical cancer.
The Cancer Treatment Centre currently under construction at Kamuzu Central Hospital also provides a ray of hope to the fight against cancer in the country where the disease remains a public health problem and the trend is increasing overtime.
Once completed, the centre will help the country in dealing with cancer as, for a long time, people have been going to South Africa and India to receive treatment, some on government’s referral while others pay from their pockets.
Ministry of Health (MoH) spokesperson Joshua Malango says the cancer centre, expected to be operational mid this year, is at 80 percent completion and what is remaining is the construction of bunkers for radiotherapy machines.
“The cancer centre will be the main referral with particular focus on radiotherapy treatment which is lacking in Malawi. People should know that we offer surgery and chemotherapy treatment already but the missing component has been radiotherapy,” he says.
In a press release last year, MoH detailed how it has trained and is still in the process of training different professionals for the centre, including radiotherapy technologists, laboratory technologists, pharmacists, medical technicians, medical oncologists, nurses and medical physicists.
Mwakasungula describes the cancer centre as a ‘great initiative’ in dealing with the cancer burden, aside sensitisation, screening and early diagnosis . n