ACCESS to Radiotherapy treatment, a form of cancer treatment that uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors has of late become elusive, as many cancer patients are now being forced to seek treatment from traditional and herbal practitioners.
By Michael Gwarisa
Investigations by this publication indicate that at the moment, only one radiotherapy machine is working at oncocare in Newlands in Harare. The two radiotherapy machines at Mpilo have been down since 2021. Even though Parirenyatwa hospital has three radiotherapy machines, only one machine was functional throughout 2021. The machine however broke down some three weeks back and the institution is still waiting for engineers to fly into the country to fix the machines.
In most instances, cancer patients from across the country’s 10 provinces have of late been queuing as early as 2:00 am at Parirenyatwa hospital to get services since. The breakdown of radiotherapy machines has pushed a few patients from government facilities into getting treatment from private facilities while the ordinary patients who can’t afford treatment at private institutions have either gone back home to die slowly while some have resorted to seeking services from faith healers as well as traditional and herbal practitioners.
In an interview with HealthTimes, Mr Cathbert Nyaruvenda, the president for Zimbabwe National Practitioners Association (ZINPA), an association which represents the interests of traditional birth attendants, midwives, traditional and faith healers said there has been an increase in the number of cancer patients seeking treatment from traditional therapists with indications that he gets not less than 12 cancer patients who visit his treatment centre on a weekly basis.
With regards to cancer patients, I would say cancer patients constitute the biggest number of patients who come to get treatment at my centre. The biggest challenge they have indicated is that treatment for cancer in some of the health facilities is beyond the reach of many and they can’t afford it. At my surgery, per week, I get between 10 and 12 cancer patients who come looking for treatment,” said Mr Nyaruvenda.
Cancer treatment in private facilities costs an arm and a leg with indications on the ground showing that a n individual can part with US$3000.00 in some instances to get radiotherapy treatment. Mr Nyaruvenda however urged cancer patients to seek treatment at healthcare facilities as well and not to discontinue their chemotherapy treatment.
“Even though we treat these patients, we encourage all our members to refer cancer patients back to hospitals where they can get specialist treatment. We don’t encourage members to tell cancer patients to discontinue chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment. That is against our code of conduct. It is these health facilities that have the machines, all we can provide are our traditional medicines which have proven to work against some of the cancer conditions that are presented to us.”
During 2021 when the Radiotherapy machine at Parirenyatwa hospital was still functional, a total 200 plus patients would queue daily to get services from that very same machine, a development which overwhelmed the machine and probably led to its breakdown.
Speaking during a virtual meeting to mark World Cancer Day 2021, Dr Nothando Mutizira, the Chief Oncologist at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals said the number of new cancer patients visiting the Parirenyatwa radiotherapy centre over the past four years has been declining and according to cancer experts, this likely has to do with the deplorable state of the Radiotherapy and cancer treatment options available in the country’s public health institutions.
“In terms of the Radiotherapy statistics, you notice that the services are highly unreliable. There was no continuous provision of services. It’s been interruptions here and there because of machine breakdowns. Sometimes, it’s also because savers were not functioning properly. Most of 2020, we did not have any Radiotherapy services at all until August when the machines were fixed and the service was available here and there afterwards.
“In 2021, we had one machine working for all of 2021, the other two machines were down. That one machine is the machine that was treating all the cancer patients from throughout the whole country. The experience of those patients is just a sad one because now patients had to queue for treatment as early as 2:00 am in the morning and even after they had done that, we still had an excess number of patients that we could not get at the machine. At any given point we had about 200 patients waiting on the waiting lost to get on the machine. This is a very huge gap that needs to be addressed and dealt with, we cannot as whole country be sustained by one radiotherapy machine,” said Dr Mutizira.
She added that most of the patients come at stage 4 disease and this signifies the presence of very huge gaps in Zimbabwe’s cancer control.
“At this point, usually very little can be done for our patients. In terms of achieving cure. You will notice that you need more resources to treat patients with advanced disease as opposed to early stage disease which poses a huge demand on the very meager financial resources that we have a as a country.”
She added that efforts should be made to catch cancer in the early stages or in the precancerous stages but however the situation on the ground was not permitting that.
“Of the top 10 cancers in the country, we have noticed that the top cancers which is Cervical Cancer, Prostate Cancer and Breast cancer actually contribute to 66% of the cancer burden in the country. What’s disheartening is that these are the cancers that we can actually screen for and catch early on. Unfortunately they are also the leading causes of cancer deaths, leading to 61% of cancer deaths in the country. Gaps in cancer screening and awareness programs have contributed immensely to these figures. As we come with our new cancer strategy for the country, we need to seriously think about how to deal with this problem.”
Meanwhile, Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals Spokesperson, Mr Linos Dire told this publication that they were working flat out to restore service and ensure the provision of radiotherapy services is up and running soon.
“We had an interruption in the provision of radiotherapy services with effect from 17 January 2022 due to breakdown of equipment. Provision of radiotherapy is key to holistic cancer management, thus the hospital and the parent Ministry are seized with the matter.
“Concerted efforts are underway to ensure that the required spares and the foreign engineers are urgently brought in to fix the problem. The spares and engineers to fix the machines are not available locally. We hope to restore the services as soon as possible. The hospital is however still providing all other services in regards to cancer treatment as guided by our specialist oncologists,” said Mr Dire.
According the 2018 2018 Cancer Registry data, there has been a steady increase in cancer cases in Zimbabwe since 2008 with latest statistics showing that the country recorded 7659 cases in 2018. However, experts there under reportage of cancer cases in Zimbabwe with indications that the cancer burden could be way higher than 7659.