The World Health Organization says Zambia and Tanzania have
the highest incidence of cancer of the cervix in Africa. From Lusaka, Zambia, Voice of America
English to Africa Service reporter Danstan Kaunda says the two countries have
established a joint team to help with its early detection and treatment.
Doctors at the largest public health institution in Zambia, the University Teaching Hospital, diagnose more than two thousand cases of cervical cancer each year. Most of them die.
Medical experts attribute cervical cancer in part, to immune systems weakened by HIV. Smoking also may be a cause. Medical professionals think more Zambian women are at risk since the country has over three million women over 15 years of age.
Dr Swebby Macha is a cervical cancer specialist at the University Teaching Hospital. He says the joint team is working on creating preventive and treatment strategies in the two countries.
They will begin with simple and inexpensive screening methods that do not require laboratories. The team will also look at inexpensive tools that will test for cervical cancer in rural areas.
One basic low-cost clinical screening program that has worked successfully uses vinegar to detect the cancer.
Dr. Macha says women can do cancer screening themselves at home:
"It is a simple five-minute procedure, where vinegar can be applied to the cervix by a woman herself. Those cells of the cervix that are developing early cancer turn white. In such a case, we send a woman to do further testing at the health institution. And indeed, if it is confirmed cancer, then we burn off or freeze the cells."
Thirty percent of all detected cases of cancer in Zambia are considered to be serious and require surgery. Other cases are fatal.
But widespread screening for cancer in most African countries is difficult to achieve, partly because of the poorly functioning health-care system.
And there is a problem regarding experts in examining microscopic cells. Dr. Macha says, "There are shortages of lab experts called cytologists in the country – even for us at UTH [University Teaching Hospital] we only have one cytologist expert. So we are trying to establish [a] cytologist school in the country. "
A report by the US-based Johns Hopkins Program for International Education in Gynecology and Obstetrics offers another reason for the deaths caused by cervix cancer: many African countries do not consider screening a top health priority.
Zambia has the second highest incidence of cancer of the cervix in the sub-Saharan region and sixth highest in the world.