Photograph — Africa Health

The Senegalese government is offering free chemotherapy to women suffering from breast cancer and cervical cancer starting from October, next month. It is also offering to cover 60 percent of the cost of treatment for other types of cancers. An estimated $1.6 billion has been allocated for this course. 

Dr Fatma Guenoun, president of the Senegalese Anti-Cancer League, told the BBC that the government’s commitment is a relief as both cervical and breast cancer are the most common types of cancers affecting women in Senegal. According to a study by Globocan, Senegal recorded up to 1,758 new cases of breast cancer in 2018(compared to 869 in 2012), and up to 1876 new cases of cervical cancer. 

In summary, the West African country recorded over 6,500 new cases of cancer in women in 2018, other types of cancer inclusive. This gives a clue on the degree of impact this free healthcare policy is going to make in Senegal. Moreover, the Journal of Global Oncology suggests that the aforementioned statistics are likely underestimated for several reasons including poor reporting processes, lack of cancer registries, lack of diagnostic facilities, and low accessibility to screening and oncology care in rural areas.

Dr Barango Prebo, a medical officer with the World Health Organization told the BBC that the new policy is an appropriate measure, one that “will hopefully reduce mortality and help alleviate poverty,” he said, citing Rwanda, Namibia and Seychelles as other examples of African countries offering free cancer treatments.

However, although the new policy is commendable, the Senegalese government – and governments of other African countries – need to do more for cancer care. Centres with mammography machines should be established in states and municipalities across the country. This would improve early detection, treatment, and consequently survival rates. It would also improve the documentation of cancer cases. 

Free radiotherapy should be given alongside chemotherapy treatments. Three years ago,  Senegal’s only radiotherapy machine went kaput, forcing cancer patients to seek treatment abroad. The machine had been in use since 1989. Better still, public hospitals and healthcare centres should be adequately equipped to serve as one-stop centres where patients have access to all the treatment they need. 

There’s also the issue of a shortage of cancer specialists that need to be tackled. And the need for increased education and sensitisation on the disease and available treatments. In general, governments need to pay as much attention and invest as much money as they do on infectious, low-cost care diseases like malaria. 

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