Are Cancer Rates Soaring in Tanzania?

Have cancer cases at the country’s medical facilities shown a dramatic increase over the past six years?

The Guardian newspaper reports that Tanzania is experiencing a dramatic rise in cancer cases, with medical facilities struggling to cope, especially in remote communities.

While cancer patients in Tanzania have a right to be treated for free, late diagnosis and a shortage of essential drugs is, the Guardian reports, making the problem worse.

“Cancer is exploding,” says Dr Merchades Bugimbi, the Bugando Hospital’s acting director. Bugando is a referral and university teaching hospital for the Lake and Western zones of Tanzania. While the hospital has a state-of-the-art oncology wing built with the intention to make it a regional hub for cancer treatment, the facility was yet to come online at the time of publication due to a lack of funds to install and run the equipment necessary to treat cancer with radiation therapy.

The Guardian quotes medical oncologist Dr Nestory Masalu as saying that there were 320 cancer cases at Bugando in 2010, compared to 14,000 in 2016. This means that cancer diagnoses at Bugando have increased 40 fold over six years.

So are cancer rates in Tanzania rapidly increasing or are previously undiagnosed cases now being identified?

PesaCheck investigated the claim that cancer rates are ‘soaring’ in Tanzania and found that the claim is PARTIALLY TRUE for the following reasons:

During The 2016 World Cancer Day, the executive director at Ocean Road Cancer Institute (ORCI) Dr Julius Mwaisegale explained that cancer cases diagnosed at ORCI had increased from 2,500 to 56,000 cases in the period between 2005 and 2015.

The Kilimanjaro Cancer Registry (KCR) at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (KCMC) reported over 8,000 cancer cases between 2013 and 2014 in the Kilimanjaro region alone.

The government through the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare has acknowledged that cancer is a major public health problem in Tanzania. Earlier in 2017, The Citizen, a local newspaper, reported that the number of cancer patients recorded at Ocean Road has been increasing significantly over the years, noting that at least 5,244 cases were recorded in 2015, up from 4,195 in 2014 and 3,776 in 2013.

Ocean Road’s data The ORCI data reveals that Dar es Salaam leads with 16.88 per cent of all the cancer cases diagnosed in 2016, followed by Mbeya (10.83 per cent), Morogoro (10.58) and Kilimanjaro (8.31 per cent).

In all these instances, there was an increase in the number of people tested for cancer over the years, which would account for the higher numbers. Ocean Road and other treatment facilities do not have an established system to track and register cancer patients based on their exact places of origin, meaning that keeping track of diagnoses is difficult, and follow-up for treatment is a challenge.

According to Professor Ayoub Maghimba,the Tanzania Ministry of Health’s Non-Communicable Diseases Department director, the increase in cancer cases can be attributed to lifestyle choices and late discovery of cancers. 70 percent of patients, he notes, go to ORCI when it has already spread.

Dr Hamid Mustafa, a clinic oncologist at Regency Specialized Polyclinic in Dar es Salaam, agrees that there is an increase in cancer cases in the country. He says this is due to lifestyle changes that have led to increased prevalence of cancer. However, what’s more likely according to him is that better diagnosis and an increase in uptake of cancer screening is leading to the discovery of more cases that would otherwise go undiagnosed.

The claim that cancer rates are soaring in Tanzania is therefore PARTIALLY TRUE. The two major medical centres which provide cancer diagnostic and treatment services in the country have both reported an increase in the number of patients found with cancer. However, there has also been an increase in overall testing, which contributes to the increased diagnosis. Bugando Hospital, for example, is capable of testing up to 2,000 samples per week with a short turn-around time. This has led to better identification of potential cases of cancer and providing for further follow-up where treatment is necessary.

As medical practitioners use technology to spread knowledge about cancer throughout the country, people are becoming increasingly aware of the signs to look out for. We are likely to see an increase in cases of cancer diagnosed as people showing early signs visit health facilities, but we are also likely to see the survival rate increase due to effective early treatment.

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This report was written by PesaCheck Fellow Mwegelo Kapinga who is a development consultant, researcher and writer. Mwegelo has previously worked for Twaweza East Africa as a research analyst. The infographics are by PesaCheck Fellow Brian Wachanga, who is a Kenyan civic technologist interested in data visualisation. This report was edited by PesaCheck Managing Editor Eric Mugendi.

PesaCheck, co-founded by Catherine Gicheru and Justin Arenstein, is East Africa’s first public finance fact-checking initiative. It seeks to help the public separate fact from fiction in public pronouncements about the numbers that shape our world, with a special emphasis on pronouncements about public finances that shape government’s delivery of so-called ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ or SDG public services, such as healthcare, rural development and access to water / sanitation. PesaCheck also tests the accuracy of media reportage. To find out more about the project, visit pesacheck.org.

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PesaCheck is a joint initiative of Code for Africa, through its local Code for Tanzania chapter,and the Data Zetu initiative to give Tanzanian citizens actionable data, in partnership with a coalition of local media organisations, with additional support from the International Center for Journalists(ICFJ).

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