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World Cancer Day: Afghanistan Looks to Open Cancer Care Centre

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World Cancer Day,, Cancer Care and Control

Latifa Rahimi (left) and Najibullah Rasouly (right) work with the IAEA to further develop Afghanistan's ability to bring comprehensive cancer care to their country. (Photo: N. Jawerth/IAEA)

In the conflict zones of Afghanistan, one quiet adversary that does not take any sides is cancer. But for the first time in 23 years the country is preparing to get a radiotherapy machine and re-establish cancer care in Kabul.

“It was 40 years ago that we had some kind of radiotherapy service in the Aliabad Teaching Hospital, but due to the war, everything is gone,” said Najibullah Rasouly, Assistant Professor of Radiology and Senior Lecturer at Kabul Medical University and a Member of the Medical Department of the Aliabad Teaching Hospital. “The number of cancer patients is increasing, and unfortunately, we do not have any centres for treating it.”

In 1967, Afghanistan inaugurated a Cobalt Therapy Centre with IAEA support, but the outbreak of civil war in 1992 left much of the country's health infrastructure in shambles. The centre, too, was destroyed, and the country has since had no proper facilities to treat cancer.

“Before the bad situation and fighting in Afghanistan, people used to come. Students used to come to study at our universities from neighbouring countries. People used to come for treatment. Now everything is destroyed,” said Latifa Rahimi, Deputy Director General of the United Nations (UN) and International Conferences Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Afghanistan.

Cancer patients, particularly poor patients, in Afghanistan have had few diagnostic options and even fewer treatment possibilities in the country. The majority of patients are now being sent abroad, explained Rasouly. “We have some limited units in the private sector for chemotherapy, but it’s not enough. And we also have a small unit for treating lymphoma in children, but that is only one type of cancer,” he said.

“The problem is that people who can afford it, they can go abroad, but those who cannot, they are just waiting to die,” Rasouly said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars each year are being spent for treatment abroad, but why should this money go out of the country? It can instead be used in Afghanistan,” he said. “Our main objective is to treat cancer patients. The other is to provide care to poor patients that cannot otherwise afford it.”

Like in most developing countries around the whole world, cancer is a growing problem in Afghanistan. The IAEA is helping the country to establish a cancer care centre for in-patient and outpatient facilities that include oncology services, a linear accelerator and a brachytherapy unit to treat different kinds of cancers, said Abdulghani Shakhashiro, the IAEA Project Manager.

The first and second phase of the project will focus on the population of Kabul and the surrounding area, which is estimated to benefit millions of people, explained Rasouly. “And in the third phase, we are planning to extend this facility into four zones, so we can cover all of the population of Afghanistan,” he said.

Increasing awareness

A lack of information is part of the problem. Over the last decades, there were no awareness programmes in the country, but in the last two or three years, the Ministry of Public Health and other institutions have been working to raise awareness, Rasouly said. “For example, they are now raising awareness regarding breast cancer for the woman, like how to do a self-examination of the breast and when to refer for a mammogram.”

“We have already talked with the Ministry of Public Health to further extend the awareness programmes, especially for women, as the prevalence of breast cancer is increasing day-by-day. This awareness can help them to seek treatment at an earlier stage,” Rasouly said.

High-tech to the rescue

In the future, Afghanistan is also planning for a nuclear medicine facility, as well as developing a telemedicine centre through a 2016 to 2017 IAEA project. “Getting the professionals from outside of Afghanistan is difficult and expensive due to some of the security challenges of the country,” said Rasouly. “Telemedicine can be a solution to that. It is much more affordable.”

Telemedicine allows doctors to collaborate around the globe using internet and video conference tools to share images and discuss cases. It can even allow an expert in one part of the world to listen to a stethoscope pressed to a patient’s chest in another part of the world.

Afghanistan in the future will continue to work with the IAEA and to seek out additional funding, said Rahimi. The country is not in possession of everything needed for the new hospital, she explained. In this regard, the IAEA has helped to develop a bankable project so Afghanistan is able to approach donors, and the country has asked for the IAEA’s help in identifying which organizations can help, she said. “We are building a place and if there is no equipment, what will be the use?” she added. So as the work goes forward, one of the main concerns now is how to get the external support for equipment the country needs, she said.

Tomorrow, 4 February, is international World Cancer Day. There will be an event at the IAEA following this year’s theme: ‘Not Beyond Us.’ In addition to a panel of speakers, the event will include words from IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and the First Lady of Ethiopia, Roman Tesfay. For more information, see the announcement and follow the high-level panel on Twitter starting at 14:00 CET, or 17:30 Kabul time. 

Our main objective is to treat cancer patients. The other is to provide care to poor patients that cannot otherwise afford it.
Najibullah Rasouly, Assistant Professor of Radiology and Senior Lecturer at Kabul Medical University

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