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Big Trouble For Cancer Patients



Femi Atoyebi, Eniola Akinkuotu, Success Nwogu, Ihuoma Chiedozie, Jesusegun Alagbe and Alexander Okere

The uncertain fate of cancer patients in Nigeria has become more precarious as government-owned treatment machines, which are grossly inadequate and sited in seven locations across the country, have not worked for months.

Saturday PUNCH investigations revealed that some of the cancer treatment machines in the government-owned hospitals have not worked since 2016. Federal Government-owned hospitals with cancer treatment centres are in Maiduguri, Zaria, Lagos, Abuja, Ibadan, Benin and Enugu.

Even if all the cancer treatment machines in the country work effectively, they will only represent a fraction of the number of equipment needed in the country.

The Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, told Saturday PUNCH on Thursday that Nigeria needed about “200 cancer treatment machines”, while investigation showed that there were less than 20 machines in the country, including the ones in the Federal Government-owned hospitals in the seven cities.

Cancer treatment equipment include CT scan, MRI and radiotherapy machines, among others.

For instance, it was learnt that cancer treatment equipment at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital was still in a state of disrepair as it had become moribund due to wear and tear.

But the Public Relations Officer of the hospital, Mrs. Ibitoye Kehinde, stated that while the facility was old, measures were being taken to revive it.

“It is faulty for now, but we are making every effort to put it into use. As of today, it is faulty. The machine is old. So, it breaks down easily. Very soon, it will be put into use again.”

A source at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Ituku Ozalla, Enugu, disclosed that the cancer treatment equipment in the hospital had yet to be repaired.

The source explained that, although the hospital had equipment such as radiotherapy machines, they were not in order because they had not been repaired since they broke down.

Efforts to get the UNTH management to comment on the development were not successful as of the time of filing this report.

At the University College Hospital, Ibadan, it was learnt that its radiotherapy machine had been working on and off for a long time.

The hospital’s Chief Information Officer, Mr. Ayodeji Bobade, told one of our correspondents that because of pressure, the radiotherapy machine was overstretched, causing frequent breakdown.

According to him, the hospital management has engaged an expert to repair the CT scan machine.

When asked if the machine had begun operation on Thursday, Bobade said he had to check later because he was out of the city for a function and would not be back until Monday.

Saturday PUNCH also gathered that the radiotherapy machine at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba, had broken down for over two months with the lives of many cancer patients hanging in the balance.

It was learnt that the technicians meant to repair the machine failed to do so because they were being owed for the last jobs they did.

A staff member of the Department of Radiodiagnosis at the LUTH, who spoke to Saturday PUNCH on Thursday on condition of anonymity, stated that the hospital’s radiotherapy machine had been down for about two months, adding that a team of technicians was already working on repairing the machine.

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The source said, “It is true that the radiotherapy machine has not been working for the past two months. It is because it has been overworked as it is the only one available in the country.

“But a team of technicians is already on the ground working day and night to ensure it will start working properly again.”

But another source at the hospital blamed the negligence of the hospital’s management for the situation, saying, “The machine at LUTH is modern, but it is not working because of the negligence of the management (of LUTH) to ensure routine maintenance. The failure of technicians to fix the machine is not because there is no money but because the management does not think it is a priority. Those who are meant to sign the payment vouchers that would ensure the machine is fixed have been delaying it while lives are being lost to cancer.”

Lamenting the plight of cancer patients waiting for when the machine would be fixed, the source said, “Cancer treatment is in two major phases. These are chemotherapy, which can be before or after surgery, and radiotherapy. The patients are supposed to undergo radiotherapy treatment three to four weeks upon completion of chemotherapy sessions.

“Failure to commence the radiotherapy as and when due can jeopardise the life of the patient, as the cancer cells are likely to regroup and fight back or spread at an alarming speed. All the huge funds sunk into chemotherapy session will be wasted and the pains and agony that go with chemotherapy sessions will be in vain. This way, the life of the patients may be compromised.

“Currently, the fate of patients, who had already started chemotherapy in LUTH before the machine broke down, has been left desolate. There is not supposed to be any break in the treatment, which lasts for about 21 consecutive days.”

According to the source, if a patient has had the treatment sessions for 18 days and misses treatment on the 19th day, he will be required to start afresh for the treatment to be effective.

“This leads to psychological trauma and it means that time and resources have been wasted by the affected patients,” the source added.

But when Saturday PUNCH visited the office of the Chief Medical Director at LUTH, Prof. Chris Bode, he was said to be unavailable.

The Chairman, Medical Advisory Committee, Dr. Olufemi Fasanmade, who Saturday PUNCH was directed to, was also unavailable to comment on the issue.

The Public Relations Officer of the hospital, Mr. Kelechi Otuneme, said he could not comment on the matter as he needed to get permission from the CMD before speaking on it.

Adewole, the health minister, who admitted the challenges in the treatment of cancer in the country, however, expressed hope that the situation would improve in the next one year.

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Adewole told one of our correspondents that the 2017 Budget had made provisions for new cancer machines, adding that some private organisations, including Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company, were assisting the government.

The minister said the Niger Delta Development Commission was also helping to create two cancer treatment centres in Uyo and Port Harcourt.

He said, “We need one machine to one million people and if you look at our population, we need close to 200 but the situation is that we have seven and all the seven do not work at the same time; some break down and that is why we are planning what we call a strategic investment in the teaching hospitals.

“It is in the 2017 Budget and that investment will enable us to upgrade seven of our centres. We are hoping that each centre will have two machines so that even if one breaks down, the other one will be working.

“And then fortunately, the NDDC has decided to partner with us. They will be doing two hospitals in the area of their responsibility. They have been able to pick on Uyo and Port Harcourt. So, SNEPCO is also helping the National Hospital. So, we are confident that in the next one year, some of these centres will come to light. This administration is committed to doing that.”

Adewole admitted that there were challenges as regards cancer treatment but said the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration had been able to speed things up.

He added, “We don’t have enough (machine) to go round but we are working hard to address that gap. There was a cancer machine in the National Hospital for three years and it was in a crate but it was only when this administration came in that we were able to install it so you should praise this administration.”

However, the Head of Department, Management Information Services at the National Hospital, Abuja, Dr. Tayo Haastrup, said machines for cancer treatment at the centre such as CT scan,     MRI and radiotherapy machines were working.

He confirmed that a cancer machine at the hospital was in a crate for three years because the hospital lacked the funds to install it.

Haastrup, however, said a new cancer treatment centre was underway, adding that it had reached 80 per cent completion.

He said, “The new cancer centre is not yet completed. It has reached 80 per cent completion. It took long because of funding. You need to finish up the place before you install the machines. That was the issue. The minister has intervened in the area of funding and it will soon be commissioned (sic).

“It is not that we are not treating cancer patients at the moment. We have CT scan, MRI machine, radiotherapy machine and others. What we are installing now is the one at the National Cancer Centre, National Hospital.”