By: Dr.Abia Nzelu
“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money”
– Cree Indian Proverb
World Hepatitis Day is observed each year on 28 July to raise awareness of viral hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver and the principal cause of liver cancer. This year’s theme is “Hepatitis can’t wait”, conveying the urgency of efforts needed to eliminate hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030. According to WHO, with a person dying every 30 seconds from a hepatitis related illness – even in the current COVID-19 crisis – we can’t wait to act on hepatitis.
Just like hepatitis, Cancer, which is the most serious end result of hepatitis, cannot wait for us. The risk factors for cancer are multidimensional, including genetic factors, lifestyle factors (smoking, diet, physical inactivity, etc), environmental factors (air pollution, water pollution, etc), noncommunicable diseases (diabetes, hypertension, obesity, etc) and infections. Viral infections are important risk factors for some cancers. The three most common virus-related cancers are liver cancer, cervical cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The entertainment industry and Nigeria in general was recently devastated by the demise of a beloved veteran, the multitalented Olarenwaju Fasasi (Sound Sultan), who died on July 11, 2021, aged 44 years. Sound Sultan died and has since been buried in USA, after a hard-fought battle with cancer – specifically, a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma called Angioimmunoblastic T-cell Lymphoma (AITL). Among AITL’s risk factors are certain viruses. Hepatitis must also be ruled out in AITL patients, as both conditions can affect the liver, causing liver enlargement.
Sound Sultan’s death at such a young age is a bitter pill to swallow. His memory is yet another impetus to the efforts being made to ensure that Nigerians do not have to travel abroad for optimal cancer diagnosis and treatment.
↓↑GivingTide International is using the occasion of World Hepatitis Day 2021 to remind Nigerians that cancer cannot wait. Cancer can’t wait for Covid-19. Cancer can’t wait for us to get richer. Cancer can’t wait for us to elect a more responsible government. Cancer can’t wait for restructuring. Cancer never goes on holiday. Instead, every day cancer kills over 200 Nigerians, many of whom would be alive today, if Nigeria had better infrastructure for cancer care.
Cancer is an important barrier to increasing life expectancy in every nation. Therefore, Nigeria’s low life expectancy (currently the seventh lowest worldwide) will not improve, unless we tackle cancer. According to WHO, in 2019, cancer was the first or second leading cause of death before the age of 70 years in 112 of 183 countries. There were 19.3 million new cases in 2020 (up from 18.1 million in 2018), with over 120,000 occurring in Nigeria alone. There were 10 million global cancer deaths in 2020, with 70% of the deaths occurring in developing nations like Nigeria.
The higher cancer death rate in Nigeria is a result of the dearth of infrastructure. Many opt to go abroad for treatment, so much so that Nigerians now spend over $1billion dollars annually on medical tourism. Sadly, many rich Nigerians who resort to medical tourism travel at very late stages. Furthermore, the recent COVID-related lockdown has shown that medical tourism may not always be available, even if one could afford it. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s poor masses can afford neither local nor foreign treatment, while the disappearing middle class is forced to make do with local suboptimal treatment. In the end, EVERYONE IS A LOSER.
How long are we going to fold our arms while the ravage of preventable cancer continues? It is a no-brainer that we urgently need to set up world-class infrastructure for cancer care in Nigeria. We can achieve this by uniting to support the BIG WAR Against Cancer, a campaign championed by ↓↑GivingTide International, which includes the drive to establish Nigeria’s first Comprehensive Cancer Centre (CCC).
The CCC is NOT a hospital with a radiotherapy machine. Rather, it is a world-class, stand-alone tertiary health institution, with all its units focused solely on cancer care. A CCC is the only institution that can optimally tackle all stages and types of cancer. By housing first-class cancer research, preventive, curative and palliative care in one place, the CCC leads to better outcomes across a range of measures – including, most importantly, cancer survival.
Shortly before his death, Sound Sultan posted the lyrics of a song by Patoranking, which read: “Celebrate me now wey I Dey alive. Appreciate me, now when I dey alive. No be say when I leave this life, you go dey fake am for my back.” One meaningful way of celebrating and appreciating our loved ones is to support the effort to protect them from dying prematurely from catastrophic illnesses like cancer. According to WHO, one-third of cancer can be prevented, one-third can be cured and the last third can have good quality of life with appropriate care. Supporting the BIG WAR Against Cancer also honours the memory of comrades and compatriots who have died from cancer.
We call on all Nigerians, including celebrities/entertainers at home and abroad to join in ensuring that Nigeria’s first Comprehensive Cancer Centre becomes a reality in record time. Incidentally, in USA, it was a comedian and actor, Danny Thomas who facilitated the establishment of America’s first children cancer centre (St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Tennessee, USA), in fulfilment of a vow he made at a church in Detroit, USA. This hospital costs over $2 million to run daily, but patients are not charged, because all cost is covered by donations. St Jude has helped to transform the survival rate for childhood cancer in US, which has risen from 20% in 1962 to over 80% currently.
Similarly, in Pakistan, it was a celebrity, Imran Khan (then a professional cricketer) who led the efforts towards that nation’s first CCC – after he lost his mother to Colon Cancer. At this centre, 75% of patients are treated free. To raise the funds needed to set up the CCC, Imran organized over 50 fundraisers. Imran himself later underwent emergency surgery at the same Centre he had helped to establish; that operation saved his life. Imran’s story demonstrates that it is in our enlightened self-interest to support the BIG WAR Against Cancer – we never know whose life could be saved! For while it may be our privilege today to give, it may be our necessity to receive tomorrow.
↓↑GivingTide hereby calls on all to emulate global model, as exemplified by these two highlighted entertainers, by supporting the efforts towards Nigeria’s first CCC. To this end, ↓↑GivingTide has established the ↓↑GivingTide Global Trust, which is managed by FBNQuest Trustees, a subsidiary of FBN holdings.
↓↑GivingTide is an initiative to promote concerted and catalytic philanthropy. The current focal cause of ↓↑GivingTide is the BIG WAR Against Cancer, which is operated by the National Cancer Prevention Programme (NCPP), a nongovernmental initiative of mass medical mission. Since 2007, NCPP has spearheaded community-based cancer prevention across Nigeria. In 2017, a fleet of Mobile Cancer Centres was acquired and deployed, to great effect. The project is now at the phase of establishing Nigeria’s first Comprehensive Cancer Centre.
IF ONE IN SEVEN NIGERIANS DONATED ONLY
N1,000 (ONE THOUSAND NAIRA) EACH TO THE ↓↑GIVINGTIDE GLOBAL TRUST, NIGERIA’S FIRST CCC WOULD BE READY WITHIN SEVEN MONTHS. Therefore, there is no reason for the holocaust of preventable deaths from cancer. Together, it is possible!
Dr. Abia Nzelu (Executive Secretary, ↓↑GivingTide International); can be reached via email@example.com