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Niger's First Public Radiotherapy Centre Ready to Treat Patients

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On 26 March, Mahamadou Issoufou, former President of Niger, inaugurated the new radiotherapy centre, in the presence of the country’s former Prime Minister and its acting Minister of Health. (Photo: Office of the President of Niger)

On 8 June, after more than a decade of preparations supported by the IAEA, Niger’s first public radiotherapy facility was commissioned, marking an important milestone in the country’s fight against cancer and presenting, for the first time, access to essential treatment to patients.  

“The IAEA has joined Niger at every step of its journey towards the establishment of its first radiotherapy centre. Now, we are ready to conduct radiotherapy here in Niger,” said Idi Mainassara, Minister of Public Health and Social Affairs.

Of the nearly 10,000 new cancer cases in Niger every year, more than 50 percent would benefit from radiotherapy as part of their treatment, including those diagnosed with breast, cervical and lung cancer. In Africa, 28 countries still do not have a radiotherapy machine, according to the IAEA’s Directory of Radiotherapy Centres. Niger is no longer among them.

Setting up a radiotherapy centre is a complex and long process: a country needs to establish regulatory infrastructure for the safe and secure use of radioactive sources, as well as for the handling of these sources once they are no longer in use. Countries need to create a regulatory body and develop radiation protection expertise. The construction of the radiotherapy centre needs to be overseen by this regulatory body, which eventually grants a license for the centre to be built and then to be operated. At the same time, the future staff of the centre needs to be trained and attain expertise, often in a similar facility in another country.

Having completed all these steps, Niger’s National Centre to Fight Cancer (CNLC) is now ready to receive its first patients.

To coincide with the unit’s commissioning, a virtual meeting was organized by the IAEA with Minister Mainassara, Ambassador Labo and counterparts at the CNLC, from 8 to 10 June. The meeting was attended by officials from Niger and representatives of the Islamic Development Bank, which financed the project.

“The IAEA contributed to the design of the Centre's building; facilitated the purchase, delivery and installation of equipment; and supported the basic and ongoing training of personnel,” explained Minister Mainassara.

Following expert missions and the construction of two bunkers—to house and provide shielding for the radiotherapy machines—training was organized by the IAEA for 12 specialists, including radiation oncologists, medical physicists and radiotherapy technologists. In September 2020, the IAEA facilitated delivery of the facility’s final components in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. In addition to capacity-building activities, technical support for the licensing of the CNLC radiotherapy centre was a key component of the commissioning process.

“The IAEA is greatly committed to helping Niger establish its first radiotherapy facility,” said Shaukat Abdulrazak, IAEA’s Director of the Technical Cooperation Division for Africa. “This is reflected through the close negotiations and assistance required to deliver the much-needed radiotherapy equipment and specialist training despite the difficult conditions brought on by COVID-19. We will continue to provide support.”

Before the radiotherapy machine was commissioned, no public cancer treatment services were available in Niger, except for limited chemotherapy services, which are complementary to radiotherapy, but can’t replace it. While some patients were able to receive care abroad, the costs associated with international travel and treatment are prohibitive for most of the thousands of new cancer cases identified each year.

The CNLC, located in the capital Niamey, is expected to provide radiotherapy services to around 600 cancer patients from Niger and its neighbouring countries in West Africa each year. The new radiotherapy services will improve the quality of life of cancer patients and reduce mortality rates.

Staying on track to save lives

The IAEA also provided assistance to the Government of Niger to strengthen its national radiation safety and security regimes. This involved the development and approval of a nuclear law, the establishment of a regulatory framework for radiation safety, including the creation of a new national regulatory authority. These achievements provide a firm foundation for the safe use of ionizing radiation treatments at the radiotherapy centre and in other fields.

In May 2021, upon the request of the Government of Niger, the IAEA and a team of international experts conducted an International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS) mission in the country. IPPAS missions help countries to strengthen their national nuclear security regimes, systems and measures.

The road ahead

A new roadmap, agreed by Niger and the IAEA, will help the country to meet its objective of improving services for cancer patients. The roadmap identifies the training and resources needed for the expansion of radiotherapy services—including the installation of additional equipment at the CNLC using funds secured from the Islamic Development Bank—and the associated regulatory oversight necessary for radiation safety and security in Niger.

Idi Mainassara, Minister of Public Health and Social Affairs (left), listens to Shaukat Abdulrazak, Director of IAEA Division for Africa, on IAEA efforts to equip and train personnel at Niger’s National Centre to Fight Cancer, 8 June 2021. (Photo: O. Yusuf/IAEA)

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