Tanzania Celebrates Launch of New Cancer Treatment Equipment

21 May 2008

There was an air of celebration at the Ocean Road Cancer Institute (ORCI) in Dar es Salaam last week. Tanzania's national colours proudly fluttered from buildings and marquees and a military band played dignified music at a ceremony to launch a new state-of-the-art radiotherapy machine. “We consider this event as one of the milestones in cancer control in our country,” Tanzania's President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete told the audience of more than 300 dignitaries, health professionals and cancer patients. “We are happy and pleased to reach this stage. For us it is a great leap forward in our fight against this dreaded disease.”

Donated by MDS Nordion of Canada through PACT, the US$750,000 Equinox 80 machine is an urgently needed addition to ORCI's treatment capacity as the hospital struggles to cope with around 3000 new cancer patients and up to 10,000 follow-up cases each year. Until now, ORCI — the country's sole cancer treatment and radiotherapy centre — had just two machines, capable of treating up to 100 patients each day. The new machine effectively doubles that treatment capacity.

Still, with a population of 38 million and an estimated 35,000 new cancer cases annually, ORCI's heroic efforts meet only a small percentage of Tanzania's cancer needs. For this reason, IAEA/PACT is working in close collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international and local partners to help Tanzania develop and implement a national cancer control strategy tailored to meet its specific needs and resources.

Acknowledging the importance of these partnerships, IAEA Deputy Director General Werner Burkart, who attended the ceremony, said: “Only by working together can we prevent the cancers that can be prevented, treat and cure those that can be cured, and ease the suffering that cancer causes.” Echoing the optimism of the day, Mr. Burkart went on to say: “This ceremony marks a celebration of hope in what must be a sustained and collaborative effort to control the burden of cancer in this country.”

In 2005 Tanzania was nominated to be one of the six PACT Model Demonstrations Site (PMDS) countries, with ORCI as a key stakeholder. Since then, the Tanzanian authorities, IAEA/PACT, WHO and other key international partners have worked together to consolidate and strengthen cancer control capacity. As part of these efforts, the Tanzanian Government has established a National Steering Committee for Cancer Control to prioritize activities and oversee national cancer strategies. But the challenges are many.

As in the majority of developing countries, up to 80 percent of cancer patients in Tanzania seek medical help only when the disease is too far advanced for effective treatment. For this reason, urgent investment is needed in cancer prevention and early detection, especially among the country's largely rural population. At the same time, according to the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, between 80 to 90 percent of the people currently have no access to cancer treatment facilities.

Radiation therapy is an important and cost-effective tool for treating cancer or, used palliatively, for shrinking tumours and thereby relieving pain. As such, it forms an essential component of effective, sustainable cancer care and control strategies for low-income countries. Tanzania nevertheless falls far short of WHO recommended standards of one radiotherapy machine for every million people. The situation is even more dire in many other parts of the African continent, where 40 percent of countries have no radiotherapy facilities at all.

“This is very disturbing because cancer diagnosis in such a situation is synonymous to a slow and painful death sentence,” said President Kikwete. Appealing for continued international support, he promised that in his capacity as current Chairman of the African Union he would do his utmost to put the fight against cancer high on the African agenda.

ORCI's new radiotherapy machine marks just a small triumph in a much larger battle. But last week, as the sun shone on the balloons and the bunting, the sense of optimism and determination to win the fight was palpable.

“The expectant faces of the patients listening to their President's remarks left a lasting impression on everyone present at this august ceremony,” said Massoud Samiei, Head of the PACT Programme Office. “It was a powerful reminder of the great opportunity we have through PACT, as an umbrella programme, to take advantage of the IAEA's experience and technical capacity to think and work globally in partnership with WHO and others to help developing countries fight cancer.”

In early 2008, MDS Nordion sold its external beam therapy and self-contained irradiator product lines to the U.S.-based Best Medical International Inc.