New online university to fight cancer

[Image] Africa’s capacity to fight cancer is getting
a boost from the new Educare initiative
driven by Roche and the IAEA.
(Image: IAEA)

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Swiss-based pharmaceutical firm Roche and the International Atomic Energy Agency have teamed up to launch the Education for Cancer in African Regions project, which is aimed at alleviating the shortage of cancer specialists on the continent.

The five-year oncology initiative, known as Educare, is in the pilot stages in Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana.

Roche has a special interest in disease prevention and detection, as well as enhancing diagnosis and treatment options.

It is particularly known for in-vitro diagnostics, diabetes management and cancer diagnostics. Other areas of specialty include virology, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, transplantation, and metabolic and central nervous system disorders.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is most commonly associated with the peaceful use of nuclear power and non-proliferation of potentially dangerous nuclear technology. It is less known for its work with member states in fighting cancer.

Focusing on the fields of radiology and nuclear medicine, the organisation has so far disbursed more than R1.7-billion (US$220-million) for cancer-related training and equipment.

The IAEA’s Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (Pact), which has been operating for more than three decades, mainly helps developing nations provide better care for cancer patients.

It does this by facilitating the supply of radiation treatment equipment and trained staff to operate it. In this mission the atomic agency works with a number of key health bodies, including the World Health Organisation.

A report released in June by the Lyons-based International Agency for Research on Cancer reveals that more than half of new cancer cases and cancer deaths now occur in developing countries. This means that the IAEA’s work is literally a matter of life and death for thousands.

The Pact project also helps developing nations assess their cancer treatment capabilities, researching and providing reports on issues such as the national cancer burden, cancer prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment, and rehabilitation.

Pact will oversee the Educare project, which will lead to the establishment of VUCCnet, the two components of which are the Virtual University for Cancer Control (VUCC) and a regional African cancer training and mentorship network.

Online learning

It is estimated that Africa is suffering a shortage of over 800 000 healthcare professionals, many of them desperately needed in the field of cancer care and control, because the burden of infectious diseases tends to attract the bulk of trained staff. The critical lack of expertise is cited as one of the main obstacles to better general health on the continent.

According to the World Health Organisation, 12.5% of all deaths are caused by cancer, more than HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined. By 2020 there will be 15-million new cases annually, and developing nations will carry the greater burden, with 70% of this number.

The regional training programme will initially focus on enhancing the prevention, detection, diagnosis and treatment skills of health workers at existing cancer centres in the four pilot countries. It will also train administrative staff to manage their centres more efficiently. Trained healthcare workers will be encouraged to share their new knowledge with their colleagues.

The goal is to boost the competency of staff to a level that will lead to the formation of linked national cancer centres of excellence in the four pilot countries, each one capable of servicing up to 5-million people.

The VUCC will provide students with online access to high-quality training modules, as well as relevant information about the main types of cancer affecting sub-Saharan Africans – prostate, breast, head, neck, and cervical cancer, and related diseases such as Kaposi’s sarcoma, which is associated with HIV/Aids. The learning portal will also offer accreditation to candidates who complete their studies.

“The creation of centres of excellence in Africa, backed by a virtual university, is a great concept,” said Dr Kennedy Lishimpi of the Cancer Diseases Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia. “It will provide good resources for already practising oncologists and other cancer professionals. It will also help to train the core health workers that are urgently required in oncology units in Africa.”

Countries such as South Africa and Egypt are to provide skilled oncologists to help with course development and mentoring.

The VUCC also aims to staunch the flow of medical professionals off the continent through a three-pronged strategy – it will help to improve salaries and working conditions, boost radiotherapy facilities, and improve training and career options.

Fighting breast cancer

In a related development, the Pact initiative has joined with the Breast Health Global Initiative (BHGI) to fight the spread of breast cancer in the developing world. The project will make use of VUCCnet resources in achieving its objective and has rolled out in Ghana through a collaboration with NGO HopeXchange, organiser of the Ghana Breast Cancer Alliance.

The virtual university will offer a special breast cancer curriculum, which will be extended to the other three countries once the Ghanaian pilot phase has ended.

BHGI chair Benjamin Anderson expressed his pleasure at the new partnership: “By working together, we can effectively integrate overlapping programs to achieve our common goals of building capacity through stronger regional and national healthcare systems, beginning in Ghana.”

http://www.hopexchangemedicalcenter.org/