A few weeks’ after my first installment ‘Cabin Crew: Prepare for landing’, here I am again, attempting to share insights of my first deep-dive into the world of healthcare and cancer in Least Developed Countries.
My first month plan was all about ‘going and seeing’; understanding how Sub Saharan Africa works, the world of Healthcare (private and public), what NGOs do; the challenges, the risks, the opportunities… I started by meeting the teams at the Cancer Institute, the oncologists, the supporting partner organisations and, of course, the patients: the people at the end of our supply chains who are the reason we come to work every day.
Some were surprised that I was so keen in wanting to meet cancer patients, there were a few raised eyebrows and ‘are you sure?’ moments. Yes, I am sure. I want to hear the voice of the patient, see the good, the bad and the ugly. And so I did, day after day, and the messages are loud and clear.
Three big themes resonate wherever one goes: ‘I can’t afford the treatment’… ’they didn’t have the drugs’… ‘I am going to die’. For a Supply Chain person like me, hearing that people are dying due to poor supply or no availability of drugs is not easy to stomach. Moreover, affordability: some patients can’t even afford some of the basic medicines that will help them treat the pain, or infections, and morphine becomes the one and only painkiller. A lady in the street (not a cancer patient) mentioned casually – and strangely nonchalantly – that she would kill herself if she found out she had cancer, as people don’t understand what they have and ‘everyone suffers and dies’. It is not uncommon for some tumors to be associated with witchcraft.
I met a stunning bright eyed, beautiful smile 17-year-old girl with a giant cell tumor on her shoulder that is as big as her head. Whilst she was telling me that she likes to sing and read novels, trying to contain the pain, the palliative team were telling her family that they could not operate and her disease is not curable.
Cancer kills over 450 thousand people in Africa every year, it is expected that by 2030 it will kill almost 1 million. Survival rate for some cancers is below 50% in Uganda, whereas it would be above 90% in developed countries. This is a nation that is now surviving Malaria, TB, HIV… yet cancer is killing them. You can imagine it took me a few days to digest the fact that Cancer in Africa is a death sentence. One could argue it is a perception, but that perception is their reality, one that many of us are oblivious to.
I have seen disease from a different perspective, one that I had never experienced before to this extent. If there is one thing that I can openly admit is that I am being challenged at many levels, from the head, through to the heart and guts, all in unison. For all the feelings of helplessness, impotence and sheer frustration, meeting these people has ignited something that is making me even more determined to really do more, because these people need to feel better, be accurately diagnosed and effectively treated.
How can we raise awareness and make quality drugs more affordable and accessible to least developed countries?
If you are still reading, I hope you agree there is a lot more we can do. The ‘how’ is a tough one to work out… one step at a time.
To read more, see this must read timely article from the NYT, where the picture is borrowed from: As Cancer Tears through Africa, Drug Makers draw up a battle plan’