- 346 women died from cervical cancer in Lesotho in 2020 alone,
- while govt continues to dither on the construction of cancer treatment facility.
LESOTHO’S lack of facilities to treat cancer continues to cost the country dearly.
This amid revelations by Health Minister Semano Sekatle that 346 out of the 514 women diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2020 had died.
Addressing a media briefing in Maseru this week, Mr Sekatle said cervical cancer was the most common cancer in Lesotho with an average 500 women being diagnosed with the disease annually.
“About 500 Basotho women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually,” Mr Sekatle said this week.
“346 out of the 514 female cancer patients died in 2020 alone. Despite the availability of cervical cancer screening services at health facilities countrywide, uptake of these services is very low. The low levels of screening mean that women present themselves for treatment during the advanced stages of the disease when little or nothing can be done to save their lives,” Mr Sekatle said.
The death toll for both females and males from other forms of cancer is not known but it could even be higher given that Lesotho does not have its own facilities to treat the scourge. It continues to rely on South Africa, India and other countries for the treatment of cancer. Such referrals to other countries are also heavily bleeding the fiscus.
Mr Sekatle bemoaned the high costs of treating cancer patients, saying at least M100 000 was spent on the treatment of a single patient in neighbouring South Africa.
“Cervical cancer has high economic costs. The government spends over M100 000 on the treatment of one cervical cancer patient in South Africa.
“There are other economic and social costs. Very often, family members lose work opportunities while caring for loved ones. When a breadwinner dies, the resulting loss of income can force drastic changes in family priorities, with education often becoming less of a priority,” Mr Sekatle said.
The minister said the government had resolved to re-introduce the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programme to help prevent cervical cancer in women.
According to the https://www.cancer.gov/news website, research has confirmed that widespread use of the HPV vaccine dramatically reduces the chances of women developing cervical cancer.
In an 11 year study of 1, 7 million women in Sweden from 2006 to 2017, the vaccine’s efficacy was particularly pronounced among girls vaccinated before age 17, among whom there was a 90 percent reduction in cervical cancer incidence compared with the prevalence rate in women who had not been vaccinated.
Therefore, the government had resolved to re-introduce the HPV vaccination programme which was started in 2009 and stopped in 2015 due to financial constraints, Mr Sekatle said.
He said from 25 April to 6 May 2022, his ministry would be targeting at least 130 000 girls aged nine to 14 years countrywide. He said the vaccination campaign would be formally launched on 19 April 2022 in Butha-Buthe in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Training.
“Lesotho has started the journey towards the elimination of the scourge through the re-introduction of HPV vaccination as a primary prevention measure for cervical cancer.
“HPV vaccination is part of the comprehensive cervical cancer prevention and treatment strategy. Vaccination and screening will contribute to poverty reduction, sustaining primary and secondary education, empowering women and improving child health,” Mr Sekatle said, adding the overall cost for vaccinating 130 000 girls at US$4 per child would be US$ 520 000.
While prevention is commendable, the construction of a cancer treatment facility in the country would go a long way in ensuring the country wins the war against cervical and other cancers that continue to wreak havoc and impact negatively on the socio-economic well-being of families.
The Director General of Health Services, Nyane Letsie, said earlier this year cancer had become a major health concern as it was now the second leading cause of death for women and fifth for men. She was speaking at the World Cancer Day commemorations in Maseru 0n 4 February 2022.
She said cancer of the cervix was the leading cause of death among female cancer patients.
Dr Letsie also revealed that Lesotho was paying a high price for failing to construct its own cancer treatment facility, saying the government spent M144 million on cancer referrals to South Africa in 2021 alone.
The average monthly cost of sending patients to South Africa for treatment was M12 million, she said.
“We spent M144 million in the past year on paying South African health institutions for the treatment of our cancer patients.
“It costs us M12 million per month to pay for treatment. The cost of treating one patient from start to finish ranges from M150 000 to M200 000. Clearly, these are huge amounts that we are paying and the spending will only be reduced when we start offering some cancer services locally,” Dr Letsie said at the time.
She also said plans were underway for the construction of a cancer hospital in Lesotho which would reduce the burden and costs of sending patients to South Africa for treatment.
She said that a chemotherapy unit that had been established at Queen Mamohato Memorial Hospital (QMMH) would be fully operational once they had recruited staffers to man the facility.
“There are three main areas that we are looking at (to close the care gap). One being the provision of infrastructure, the other being the recruitment of human resources and the third being the procurement of drugs and supplies. It is worth noting that despite the delay in constructing the cancer hospital, we are glad that the process has begun. I’m sure that now that the health ministry is in charge (of QMMH), it will soon announce what it will take for the continuation of the project.
“We also wish to inform the nation that after the government took over QMMH, it established a special unit within the hospital to provide cancer services. We have begun employing staff to make sure that chemotherapy is provided at QMMH,” Dr Letsie said.
She said plans were underway to ensure that cancer services were provided at other health facilities in various districts.
Five years ago, during the World Cancer Day commemorations, Dr Letsie said the same thing but up to now there is still no cancer hospital in the country. At the time, she said the frightening statistics had forced the government to come up with plans to build a cancer centre which would open its doors by the end of 2020.
The Director of Environment in the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture, Stanley Damane, yesterday said the ball was in the Health ministry’s court now that his ministry had passed the Radiation Protection Agency Act to pave way for the construction of the cancer treatment facility.
“The construction of the cancer facility is the responsibility of the Ministry of Health.
“What they have to do is to apply for an environmental clearance which they have not done to date. We have already passed the enabling legislation (Radiation Protection Agency Act). So, there is nothing is stopping them (from constructing the cancer facility),” Mr Damane said this week.
Contacted for comment yesterday, the Health ministry’s Public Relations Manager, Mamolise Falatsa, said they were making progress as they had already awarded a tender for the initial civil works required for the construction of the cancer facility in Maseru.
Ms Falatsa said the civil works should be completed by September this year.
Asked how this was possible in the absence of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) plan, Ms Falatsa appeared to contradict Mr Damane. She said Mr Damane was “behind” because the EIA had already been conducted and granted by the environment ministry in line with the Radiation Protection Agency Act.
It remains to be seen if the government will finally walk its own talk on the construction of the cancer facility. In the meantime, women and others continue to die and families are being deprived of breadwinners, thus consigning them to poverty.