Govt clears operations of new cancer centre

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The government has cleared the northern regional cancer centre to start handling patients ahead of official commissioning around November, officials have revealed.

Dr Jackson Orem, the executive director of Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI), the body in charge of cancer care in the country, said a wide range of care for cancer patients shall be given.

“The functionalisation [of the centre] has started. Patients can go there now. Any care can be accessed there except radiotherapy. All the basic things can be done there,” Dr Orem said, adding, “We will do cancer screening, diagnosis, investigations, treatment, follow-up, admissions, emergencies and also the element of referrals.”

The Shs30 billion centre, based in Omoro District, has 100 beds with state-of-the-art equipment for the diagnosis of cancer and staff for handling patients, according to the UCI.  The centre services are not limited to northern but will extend to eastern Uganda too.

UCI also said in an official statement on Saturday that the establishment of the centre is part of their strategy to “decentralise cancer care services in the country.”

According to information from the Institute and the Health Ministry, Mbarara Cancer Centre is already treating children, majorly from Southwestern Uganda. There are plans to establish other regional cancer centres in Mbale and Arua.

Many cancer patients and caretakers from districts outside the central region have been struggling to travel long distances to Kampala-based UCI for care.

This is amid concerns about the high cost of living in the capital city because treatment often has cycles that take months or years to complete. As a result, UCI has been reporting cases of treatment abandonment.

Prof William Bazeyo, the UCI Board Chair, said: “We have staff ready for deployment and diagnostic equipment too funded by the government. This facility has been constructed specifically for cancer awareness, diagnosis and treatment.”

Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, the Health minister, said earlier in an interview that the regional cancer centres would be essential in addressing the low cancer survival rate (currently at around 20 per cent) in the country by bringing services closer to the population.

Dr Orem said a recent survey they did in the country showed that the majority of cancer patients are in the central region and mid-north, followed by western and eastern parts of the country.

“That means the burden of the disease is high because it is not easy to travel to Kampala. Decentralising is the only way of solving the difficulty in accessing care,” he added.

Dr Nixon Niyonzima, the head of research and training at UCI, previously said they are registering increases in the number of cancer patients. UCI handles around 65,000 patients annually.

The average number of new cases of children and adults with cancer patients registered at the facility increased from 3,500 in 2015 to 7,400 in 2021, according to information from UCI.

About 32,617 new cases and 21,829 cancer deaths were registered in 2018 in Uganda, according to statistics from Globocan, which is compiled by the World Health Organisation. Recently, the country has lost prominent people, including former Speaker of Parliament Jacob Oulanyah and former Security Minister Gen Elly Tumwine to cancer.

Background
The journey to establish Northern Uganda Cancer Centre began in 2017 after the board of directors of UCI wrote to Koro Sub-county (then in Gulu District) administration requesting land.

However, for about five years, there was political ping-pong about the location of the facility, which delayed the kick-off of construction, past reports by this newspaper indicate. However, the construction of the centre started with the official launch of construction works in 2021.

Prime Minister Nabbanja, after the death of Jacob Oulanyah, the Former Speaker of Parliament, proposed that the centre should be named after the Speaker, a proposal which was endorsed by the local government councils in Northern Uganda in 2022.

Oulanyah had been pushing for the establishment of this centre. He was suffering from late-stage cancer and experienced organ failure prior to his death in America last year.

Launch
The new centre sits on a 4-acre land and was built using government funding and interest-free financing from the Republic of Austria worth Euro 7.5 million (about Shs33 billion). The construction started in 2021 with the Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja launching it.

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