Niger steps up fight against can­cers stalk­ing women


Niger has stepped up the fight against breast and cer­vi­cal can­cer, us­ing screen­ing and public aware­ness cam­paigns to re­verse a scourge af­fect­ing more and more women in the prime of life.

“The sit­u­a­tion in Niger is very alarm­ing,” said on­col­o­gist Is­si­mouha Dille. “Breast and cer­vi­cal can­cer are se­ri­ous public health prob­lems.”

The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WHO) says some 8,000 new can­cer cases are recorded each year in the poor Sa­hel coun­try with a life ex­pectancy of 56 years.

More than a quar­ter of the cases — 27 per­cent — are breast can­cer, fol­lowed by cer­vi­cal can­cer, which ac­counts for 14 per­cent of cases, ac­cord­ing to hos­pi­tal sta­tis­tics.

Dille, who heads the hu­man­i­tar­ian group SOS-Can­cer, said ig­no­rance and poverty im­peded ef­forts to ad­dress the prob­lem.

“Es­pe­cially deep in the coun­try­side, women suf­fer in si­lence,” view­ing can­cer as an “evil spell,” Dille said.

A hu­man­i­tar­ian of­fi­cial added: “In the ab­sence of med­i­cal care, suf­fer­ers con­sult witch doc­tors and of­ten die in their huts.”

Dille said screen­ing for the two forms of can­cer has pre­vi­ously been aimed at women be­tween 50 and 60 years of age, but that to­day clin­ics are see­ing pa­tients aged 35 and even younger.

“A woman who is still ac­tive can suc­cumb to ill health be­cause we don’t have the means to treat her,” she said. “This woman will die.”

When “a por­tion of the ac­tive pop­u­la­tion, which helps the coun­try de­velop, when this por­tion dies, what will we do? There will be no de­vel­op­ment,” Dille said.

With the help of in­ter­na­tional part­ners such as the WHO, the for­mer French colony has de­cided to give pri­or­ity to preven­tion ef­forts.

“We can pre­vent cer­vi­cal can­cer by screen­ing,” Dille said, not­ing that the test costs less than 6 eu­ros (US$6.5) per pa­tient.

Treat­ment costs are as­tro­nom­i­cal in com­par­i­son “when we ac­count for the surgery, ra­di­a­tion, chemo­ther­apy — with lit­tle chance of re­cov­ery, I might add,” she said.

Last month SOS- Can­cer car­ried out a public aware­ness cam­paign in sev­eral towns, of­fer­ing free screen­ing to more than 500 women, a num­ber of whom it said tested pos­i­tive.

In 2014, the gov­ern­ment launched a free pro­gram to vac­ci­nate girls be­tween nine and 13 against cer­vi­cal can­cer, reach­ing more than 19,000 girls, most in the cap­i­tal Niamey.

The pi­lot pro­ject will soon be ex­tended to the whole coun­try, with Health Min­is­ter Mano Aghali stress­ing on na­tional tele­vi­sion that the vac­cine of­fers life­long pro­tec­tion.

A ra­di­a­tion ther­apy cen­ter is un­der con­struc­tion in Niamey with sup­port from the In­ter­na­tional Atomic Energy Agency.

Cur­rently, most can­cer pa­tients have ac­cess only to pal­lia­tive care, with only a “hand­ful” of Nige­riens able to af­ford the pro­hib­i­tive cost of seek­ing treat­ment abroad, a hos­pi­tal source told AFP.

The mes­sage that screen­ing is a “ne­ces­sity” is one that SOSCancer is try­ing to spread na­tion- wide through tele­vi­sion and ra­dio broad­casts in lo­cal lan­guages.

Posters with pic­tures of can­cer pa­tients who have had a breast or a limb re­moved hang in a va­ri­ety of public places, as well as out­side phar­ma­cies.

Mar­ried at 15

“If the rav­ages of can­cer are added to a high birthrate and en­demic food crises, the im­pacts may be un­sus­tain­able for Niger,” one of the world’s poor­est coun­tries, Dille said.

Girls of­ten marry at an ex­tremely young age and Niger’s cul­ture en­cour­ages large fam­i­lies, with the cur­rent av­er­age stand­ing at 7.6 chil­dren per fam­ily.

Two in three girls are mar­ried by age 15, and a girl or woman dies ev­ery two hours from com­pli­ca­tions linked to preg­nancy or child­birth, ac­cord­ing to the U.N. Pop­u­la­tion Fund in Niamey.

“The only ad­vice I can give to my sis­ters is that if they ever have can­cer, they should not go to the witch doc­tor,” said a can­cer pa­tient who gave her name only as Aicha.

“They should come quickly to a health cen­ter be­fore the dis­ease de­vel­ops. Can­cer is a hid­den ill­ness that we don’t see, it de­vel­ops on the in­side and defeats its vic­tim.”

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