The battle against cancer, particularly in terms of prevention and treatment, continues to face significant challenges due to limited access to diagnostic services in Nigeria, particularly in the southeastern region.
Despite the fact that cancer is responsible for the deaths of 78,000 people annually in Nigeria, public hospitals in the southeastern states currently lack Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines for disease detection.
Recent reports indicate that the five states in the southeast region contribute to about 13 percent (10,000) of the yearly cancer-related deaths, which oncologists have confirmed are on the rise due to various factors such as lifestyle choices, consumption of processed foods, diets, smoking, alcohol consumption, and high intake of starchy foods.
The investigation by The Guardian has revealed efforts to upgrade and equip the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) in Enugu as the primary cancer care center for the region. However, the region, with a population of approximately 22 million and renowned health institutions like the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital (NAUTH) in Awka, Anambra state, continues to refer cancer cases requiring thorough medical examination to private facilities in Enugu or public tertiary facilities in Lagos, Ibadan, as well as the northern parts of the country.
While the region struggles with the absence of an MRI facility in public tertiary hospitals, it was also discovered that one of the cancer detection machines, mammography, was not available in any tertiary hospital in the zone until 2007.
MRI is a non-invasive imaging technology used for disease detection, diagnosis, and treatment monitoring. It is commonly used to investigate or diagnose conditions affecting soft tissues, such as tumors or brain disorders.
The procurement of a modern MRI machine costs billions of naira, along with high monthly maintenance costs. Accessing the service in private facilities in the southeast region is prohibitively expensive, making it inaccessible to ordinary individuals.
Professor Ifeoma Okoye, a radiology professor at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), expressed her disappointment, stating, “Is it not shameful that UNTH, one of the three first-generation premier teaching hospitals in Nigeria, still does not have an MRI machine? I have appealed to our representatives in the National Assembly multiple times, but there has been no result.”
The UNTH in Enugu is the only approved center of excellence by the federal government to handle cancer cases in the southeast region. All other federal government hospitals in the southeast refer cancer cases to the oncology unit at UNTH.
Efforts to obtain the number of patients referred from states in the zone to UNTH for diagnosis have failed, but a hospital source confirmed that “we receive patients on a daily basis from various states in the southeast.”
Dr. Greg Ogbuisi, a public health specialist, highlighted that the mortality rate of cancer will remain high in the southeast region until diagnosis and treatment become more affordable. He emphasized the need for basic diagnosis and treatment facilities for cancer patients in public hospitals to improve accessibility for all individuals, regardless of their financial status.
Dr. Nwamaka Lasebikan, the Director of the Oncology Centre at UNTH, agreed that an MRI machine would be more effective than the current CT scan machine used at the hospital. She mentioned the efforts that have been made to enhance cancer treatment at the facility, which includes a comprehensive range of treatment options such as surgery, state-of-the-art radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.
However, she acknowledged the need for an MRI machine, which provides better resolution and enables clearer and more accurate diagnosis of cancer and tumors compared to a CT scan. She believes that having an MRI machine would significantly improve cancer care and diagnosis in the region.
According to Emeritus Prof. Okechukwu Mbonu, a former President of the West African College of Surgeons, cancer patients in the southeast have been seeking treatment at the federal facility in Ibadan due to the lack of comprehensive diagnostic services in the region. He expressed optimism about the upgraded Oncology Centre at UNTH but highlighted the need for an MRI machine to further enhance the facility’s capabilities.
Dr. Azubuike Onyebuchi, the Chief Medical Director of the Federal Medical Centre in Umuahia, emphasized the importance of adequate healthcare facilities in curbing the brain drain of medical experts leaving the country for better opportunities. He noted that the hospital has always referred cancer cases to UNTH due to its expertise in handling complex cases. However, he acknowledged the high cost of cancer treatment, which limits accessibility and contributes to the increasing cases of the disease in the region.