Virtual University and Regional Training Network for Cancer Control
IAEA Responds to Critical Human Resources Shortages in Africa
Miriam Owusu Sekyere, an oncology nurse, works in the cancer unit of the Komfo Anokye teaching hospital in Kumasi, Ghana. (Photo: M. Sekyere)
- Story Resources
- Director General Highlights Two New Programs on Cancer Control, 2 March 2010
- Applied Sciences of Oncology Distance Learning Course, 5 January 2010
- In Focus: Cancer Care and Control
- Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT)
- Technical Cooperation programme for Africa
- IAEA Division for Human Health, Applied Radiation Biology and Radiotherapy
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- Distance Assisted Training for Nuclear Medicine Professionals (DAT)
As the incidence of cancer increases in developing countries so too does the need for skilled cancer care professionals to help fight the growing epidemic. But with over-burdened health services already afflicted by acute staff shortages, attracting doctors and nurses to this specialized field is particularly difficult. Through PACT, the IAEA is now launching a pilot project in Africa to establish VUCCnet, a Virtual University for Cancer Control supported by a regional cancer training and mentorship network.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were 667 000 new cancer cases in Africa in 2008 alone, and more than half a million cancer deaths. And these figures are set to rise dramatically over the next decade. Yet it´s estimated that Africa currently has a needs-based shortage of more than 818 000 health workers. The field of cancer care and control is one of the hardest hit because human resources are mainly channeled towards the continent´s heavy burden of infectious diseases. In addition, a number of more specific hurdles hamper recruitment.
Barriers to Recruitment
Three years ago, when 25-year old Miriam Owusu Sekyere was considering oncology nursing, many people in her home country, Ghana, tried to dissuade her. "There are many misconceptions about working in an oncology unit," she says. "Some people believe that proximity to radiotherapy may result in cancer later on in life or that a young woman could become infertile. I was discouraged, and frightened." But Miriam´s family and colleagues were supportive and she went on to successfully complete her oncology nursing training in South Africa, funded by the Ghanaian government. Today, working in the cancer unit of the Komfo Anokye teaching hospital in Kumasi, Ghana´s second largest city, Miriam is dedicated to her job and says she has never regretted her decision.
As Miriam´s story illustrates, fear and misunderstandings surrounding the nature of the work are hindering many sub-Saharan African countries in their efforts to recruit and train cancer care professionals. At the same time, poor conditions and few prospects of career development do little to entice Africa´s brightest and best into oncology. The reality is more likely to be a long hard slog of low paid work in poorly equipped cancer centres, where the numbers of patients are overwhelming.
That´s why the IAEA, through its Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT) and in collaboration with WHO and other international partners, is aiming to tackle the human resources shortfall where it can have most impact - on the ground, in Africa.
Cancer Centres Linking Learning, Mentorship
Four established cancer centres in sub-Saharan Africa will form the hub of a pilot phase for the VUCCnet, which has been developed to advance knowledge transfer, professional mentorship and continuous learning across the region. High-quality training programmes will be delivered through a network formed by the four pilot centres together with mentor cancer centres in countries such as Egypt and South Africa. The Virtual University of Cancer Control will provide students with access to information and training modules online. Content will be developed with reference to the pattern of prevalent cancers in sub-Saharan Africa, namely those of the cervix, breast, head and neck, and prostate, as well as lymphomas and Kaposi´s sarcoma, the AIDS-related cancer.
Dr. Kennedy Lishimpi, Acting Executive Director of the Cancer Diseases Hospital (CDH) in Lusaka, Zambia, says that cancer is a major public health problem across the region. For example, Zambia now has one of the world´s highest rates of cervical cancer, at 53.7 per 100 000 women. Since the CDH opened in 2006, it has treated more than 3 500 patients with a total staff of just 32.
"These are the only staff with oncology training in Zambia today, so clearly we need to train more people," says Lishimpi. "The creation of centres of excellence in Africa, backed by a virtual university, is a great concept because it will provide good resources for already practicing oncologists and other cancer professionals. It will also help to train the core staff that are urgently required in oncology units in Africa."
Addressing a Vital Global Health Need
Acknowledging the mission and vision of IAEA/PACT in the global fight against cancer, Ambassador Glyn T. Davies, Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the IAEA, said his country was proud to continue its support of these "noble efforts" by donating $750 000 to the VUCCnet project. "PACT is more than just a programme addressing a vital, critical, global health need," he said in a speech given on the occasion of World Cancer Day. "It is also a model of how the IAEA is promoting the peaceful use of nuclear technology in a results-based way, focusing on cost-effectiveness and on building sustainable partnerships between recipient countries and donors."
VUCCnet is a timely new initiative that draws on the IAEA´s parallel efforts in cancer education and training. Through its Technical Cooperation programme for Africa, the Agency already supports individual fellowships and scientific exchanges in cancer management. At the same time, VUCCnet will rely on the technical expertise and competence of the Division of Human Health for training content and curricula. The IAEA´s experience in Distance Assisted Training (DAT), a fellowship programme providing support for doctors from countries without formal university programmes in nuclear medicine, will be invaluable. VUCCnet will also benefit from other relevant IAEA experience, such as the Applied Sciences of Oncology Distance Learning Course.
See Story resources for more information.
By Angela Leuker, for Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT)