The challenge of non-communicable diseases in Africa

non-communicable diseases
Copyright: Aubrey Wade/Panos

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[NAIROBI] In October this year, I attended the burial of a 34-year-old secondary school teacher who had died from cancer of the blood.

I recalled this sad occasion during the Merck Luminary Africa Conference in Kenya last month (16-17 November), at which cancer was one of the non-communicable diseases (NCDs) medical experts from Sub-Saharan Africa gathered to discuss.

Listening to the deliberations on diabetes, hypertension, cancer and fertility management, I remembered local leaders at that funeral appealing to the government for sustainable access to healthcare in management of chronic ailments.

Healthcare professionals and policymakers at the meeting must have been alive to this call, with Kenya’s cabinet secretary for health, James Macharia, and Kenya’s Nairobi County governor, Evans Kidero, urging closer public-private partnership to provide quality healthcare for the majority of poor and younger people who cannot afford the high costs of treating NCDs.

African governments need to advance human resource capacity to prevent, detect, and treat the rising cases of NCDs.”

Evans Kidero, Nairobi County

“NCDs are a serious development challenge for the low- and middle-income countries in Africa,” Macharia told the participants from Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda and their counterparts from Europe and Asia.

NCDs are affecting financially and socially disadvantaged people at an early age, leading many in low-income countries to die sooner than their counterparts in high-income countries.

“African governments need to advance human resource capacity to prevent, detect, and treat the rising cases of NCDs by formulating policies that enhances more funding for the local health sector,” Kidero, a trained pharmacist, told the conference.

African countries lack highly qualified specialists dealing with NCDs, particularly cancer. In Kenya there are 15 qualified oncologists serving a population of 40 million, the conference heard. The situation is extreme in Nigeria, where only 20 oncologists serve 160 million people.

I concur with Kidero that this scenario requires a well-structured public-private partnership for resource and human capacity building as the size and complexity of the task is “so large that no single organisation or institution can manage on its own”.

From Rasha Kelej, Merck Serono’s vice-president and head of global business responsibility and market development, , I learned that her organisation is involved in the Merck Capacity Advancement Program (CAP) and the Merck Cancer Access Program (MCCP) partnership with top global oncology experts, African universities and ministries of health.

Other initiatives, Kelej told me, include the UNESCO-Merck Africa Research Summit Program, which seeks to develop Africa as an international hub for research excellence and scientific innovation, the Merck More than a Mother Initiative on fertility care and the Merck E-Health Initiative.

CAP is a five-year program to expand professional capacity in developing countries in research and development, advocacy, supply-chain integrity and efficiency, pharmacovigilance, medical education and community awareness.

I found that by the end of this year (2015), over 7,000 medical students from the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Uganda’s Makerere University, Namibia University, University of Ghana, Maharashtra University in India and University of Indonesia would have benefited from European-accredited clinical chronic diseases management training through CAP.
Such a capacity building initiative could have a major impact in fighting NCDs in Africa.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.