Access to cancer care in Africa is receiving a boost, following the disclosure on Sunday in Darmstadt, Germany that some indigenous doctors have been pencilled down for medical training programmes in Kenya and India.
The initiative, which is also aimed at increasing the number of oncologists on the continent, will see nine medical doctors from sub-Saharan countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Africa benefit from a two-year programme sponsored by Merck, a leading science and technology company.
Merck announced on Sunday that it is starting the first Merck Africa Medical Oncology Fellowship Programme for sub-Saharan African countries in partnership with the University of Nairobi, Kenya, where the programme will be conducted. The firm says the gesture is part of efforts to improve access to cancer care and strengthen the healthcare system in emerging markets.
The Kenya training is the first step of the programme, disclosed Merck, adding that it will be extended to other African countries in the following year. Also, Merck will support another five African doctors to participate in a paediatric and adult medical fellowship programme, which will be held annually at Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, India. This programme will start in August this year.
“We are committed to improving patient’s access to healthcare all over the world,” said Rasha Kelej, who, as Chief Social Officer of the healthcare business sector of Merck, leads the implementation and coordination of activities designed to have a positive impact on societies in developing countries.
“In Africa, where the number of oncologists is very limited, this starts by building additional medical capacity. Our new programme aims to increase the number of qualified oncologists across the continent. The scarcity of trained healthcare personnel capable of tackling prevention, early diagnosis and management of cancer is a bigger challenge in Africa than the lack of financial resources. Therefore, we firmly believe that initiatives like ours are very helpful for Africa and also in a further step for more developing countries,” Kelej added.
Prof. Isaac Kibwage, Principal of Colleges of Health Sciences, University of Nairobi, said: “We believe that the only way to effectively prevent, detect and treat the rising number of cancer cases in Africa is through establishing public private partnerships between health ministries, academia, and industry in implementing successful programs such as the partnership with Merck. This fellowship program will not only target Kenyan doctors but doctors from sub-Saharan African countries as well with the aim of improving the quality and accessibility of cancer care in the continent.”
Health experts believe that shortage of oncologists threatens cancer care in Africa. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), by 2020 there are expected to be 16 million new cases of cancer every year, 70% of which will be in developing countries where governments are least prepared to address the growing cancer burden and where survival rates are often less than half those of more developed countries.
According to research done by Merck Kenya only has 13 oncologists, most of them based in Nairobi for a population of 47 million, which means one oncologist per 3.6 million people. For reference, in the UK there are around 13 oncologists per one million people. In Ethiopia, there are only four oncologists, all based in Addis Ababa for a population of around 100 million inhabitants.
Merck disclosed in a statement that, over the past years, that, in addition to its cancer drug Erbitux, which made Merck is a pioneer in targeted cancer therapy, the company is also making progress in the field of immuno-oncology, which is aimed at mobilising the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.