Tanzania: Why Lake Zone Has High Cancer Cases

Dar es Salaam — Chemical substances emanating from mining sites, consumption of local brews, population growth and fishing in the Lake Zone regions, have been identified by scientists as key risk factors tied to the soaring cases of cancer in the zone.

Statistics show that most of the country's cancer burden is from the Lake Zone.

In July, President John Magufuli tasked the Health ministry to carry out a study and establish the factors behind the high numbers of cancer cases in the zone.

"Most cancer patients are from the Lake Zone. Why?' Queried the President, citing data from the health ministry which say 50 per cent of cancer cases in the country come from the Zone.

"I'm talking from experience," President Magufuli was quoted as saying while touring the zone.

Scientists from the Catholic University of Health and Allied Sciences (Cuhas) say in the past 10 years, over 50,000 patients in the Lake Zone have been diagnosed with various forms of cancer at the Bugando Medical Centre (BMC)--the zone's largest health referral facility--and the number of cases could be reduced if risk factors for cancer were to be identified.

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A cancer specialist from Cuhas, Dr Nestory Masalu, said the presence of Lake Victoria, the growing population in the zone, coupled with mining and fishing activities, are aspects which point to a cancer challenge and must be researched on further and more intensively in efforts to establish the extent of the burden.

Dr Masalu was presenting a topic: 'Cancer Diseases in the Lake Zone', during Cuhas' 11th Scientific Graduation Conference in Mwanza, where global and local health experts are discussing solutions to the zone's public health challenges, under the theme: 'Emerging Health Threats in the Lake Zone, Tanzania: the need for a concerted effort'.

Dr Masalu said, "People in the Lake Zone are more exposed to certain chemicals compared to other parts of the country. For example Benzene, Vinyl Chloride, Nickel, Arsenic and Mercury which are used in mining activities are likely to contaminate water and foods that people are exposed to, yet they may lead to cancer when used beyond safety proportions," said Dr Masalu. "Aflatoxin from poorly preserved grains is another problem in this zone," he said.

"There is yet another big challenge. You see, the zone is surrounded by countries, whose cross-border interactions introduce a mix of culture," he noted.

Explaining, he said, "Because of this culture mix, we have a number of cancer patients, who cling to seeing a traditional healer, who may have come from a neighbouring country instead of seeking the right medical care."

BMC and Cuhas are working on an early population-based screening of common non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the Lake Zone.

Cuha's Research and Innovation director, Prof Dominica Morona, said it was high time efforts were invested in the Lake Zone, given the increasing concerns about health threats that are unique to the regions.

The 50,000 patients who were diagnosed with cancer at BMC, however, represent only 10 per cent of the estimated cancer burden in the Zone.

The scientists believe that there are over 500,000 cases of cancer cases which go undiagnosed, thus calling for a population-based cancer registry.

A senior clinical oncologist from Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences Prof Twalibu Ngoma said during the conference that there need for an improved cancer referral system in the Zone and the entire country. Currently, he said, policymakers are only relying on data collected from hospitals to plan for interventions.

"If we don't know the exact burden, the types and geographical distribution of cancer, this amounts to tackling the problem blindly," he said, when presenting on the topic: 'Trends in Cancer Diseases Etiology and Clinical Management in Tanzania'.

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