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TARGETING RURAL DWELLERS, NEW GROUP OUT WITH INITIATIVE TO TACKLE CANCER IN NIGERIA

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By Olusola Adebayo

Far too long, those who live in the nation’s urban centres have appropriated to themselves all the good things provided by both government and non-state actors to improve the lives of the people.

Hardly could it be otherwise, because those who formulate and implement the policies of the government themselves live in the urban centres. It is quite natural therefore for them to think of themselves, their families, dependants and associates first in carrying out their functions. Many of the projects of the government are therefore sited in the state capitals and the other cities while the rural areas, where majority of the populace dwell are left in the lurch. At best, they get to hear of government programmes and projects through their radio and television set, for those who enjoy electricity.

For many health programmes such is often the case, so much so that much of the national budget aimed at caring for the health of the people is spent on the tiny minority who live in the urban centres while rural dwellers die daily of ailments that are curable and which should not ordinarily lead to death.

Gradually, the gap created by the absence of the government in many of the nation’s remote communities is being filled by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which have taken it upon themselves to bring succour to the people.

For the people of Isanlu, the semi-urban headquarters of Yagba East Local Government Area of Kogi State and its environs, such help came recently courtesy of a new NGO, Dove-Haven Foundation (DHF), which says its vision is of a “world without cancer” and which was inaugurated in their community on February 3, 2021.

The new not-for-profit organization had chosen not to follow the trend of setting up base in the urban centres to offer service to the rich and affluent. Rather, the promoters, led by Dr. Ekundayo Samuel, had surprisingly opted to establish its base in Isanlu as it launched out in pursuit of its vision.

Choosing the prevention and eradication of cancer as its focus arose from the rising incidence of cancer in the developing world especially in sub-Sahara Africa, including Nigeria. The case of Nigeria’s rural dwellers is particularly pathetic because of their poor health seeking behavior. Most Nigerians, especially the rural dwellers, do not go to the hospital early when they have symptoms. So, when cancer cases present in the hospital, they are usually already in advanced stages when only palliative help could be offered.

Dr. Samuel and his team chose the eve of the 2021 World Cancer Day, marked globally on February 4, to officially inaugurate the organization in Isanlu as well as to embark on a programme to increase awareness among the people about the disease which has been identified as the number two killer worldwide.

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DHF was not short of dignitaries as many of them came physically or otherwise to support its cause. Although the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire was tied down in Abuja by official duties, he underscored his endorsement of the initiative by sending the Medical Director, Federal Medical Centre, Makurdi, Dr. Peteru Suega Inunduh, to deliver his keynote address on the occasion. And although he is far away in Atlanta, Georgia in the United States, former Minister of Health and Patron of DHF, Professor Eyitayo Lambo, was able to deliver his goodwill message virtually to the gathering. Similarly, the immediate past Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and member of the Board of Trustees of DHF, Hon Justice George Oguntade, and world renowned consultant radiotherapist and oncologist, Professor Francis Abayomi Durosinmi-Etti, the Technical Adviser to the foundation also sent their good will messages.

The six day programme kicked off on Monday February 1, 2021, with a cancer awareness talk followed by a symposium/training on cervical cancer screening on February 2. The official launch of Dove-Haven Foundation held on February 3, while cancer screening and counseling continued on February 4 and 5. The programme closed on February 6, with a press conference.

If DHF had favoured Isanlu by locating its headquarters there, the people were unsparing in demonstrating their appreciation. The first class traditional ruler of the town, the Agbana of Isanlu, Oba Moses Babatunde Etombi and the National President, Isanlu Progressive Union, Mr. Adedayo Kayode led hundreds of their people to attend all the sessions of the event.

In his remarks at the launch of the Foundation, Oba Etombi, who served as the chairman of the event, likened cancer to the devil who “comes to steal, kill and destroy”. He said Isanlu was fortunate the play host to the foundation’s cancer screening centre and thanked DHF for its unrelenting fight against the dreaded disease. The traditional ruler urged the people of the community to take full advantage of the opportunity to get screened for cancer as well as to make themselves available the free medical checkup offered by the centre.

In his keynote address, the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, said he decided to honour the invitation as a demonstration of his unrelenting commitment to support NGOs that are passionate about reducing the threat of cancer in the society. He said the Federal Government was eager to reverse the trend of late cancer diagnosis leading to poor treatment outcomes.

Dr. Ehanire said government was also committed to improving the capacity of the nation’s health system to ensure that cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment services were available to majority of the populace. Aware that government could not achieve these targets alone; he said it had therefore resolved to partner with relevant stakeholders including local and international NGOs in the effort at reducing the disease burden.

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The Minister said DHF had demonstrated the capacity to be a reliable partner in the fight against cancer with its vision of reducing the threat of the disease by creating awareness on early diagnosis and prevention strategies as well as assisting cancer patients to access treatment. That vision, he noted, was in line with the goals of the National Cancer Control Plan (2018 – 2022) and which he explained was why his ministry was supporting the foundation.

Professor Lambo, in his virtual address, gave a catalogue of close relations, friends and associates, including his late mother and one of his children, who had either suffered cancer and survived or who lost their lives to the disease and urged the people to take a cue from those experiences and accept the reality of cancer, which he said was claiming many lives in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world.

He said the fight to subdue cancer could be won if all hands were on deck but added that government must put in place appropriate policies and legislation as well as allocate adequate resources on a sustainable basis, to implement such policies.

He also enjoined the government to evolve effective partnership with private sector operators and development partners as well as empower families, individuals and communities, through increased knowledge and awareness, to play their own critical roles in the fight against the disease.

The former Minister, who said he had been associated with the foundation from its conception, said he was attracted to the body because of the relevance of its vision, mission, objectives and target activities as well as its organization and management which he said he completely agreed with. He also praised the foundation for assembling eminent and knowledgeable people in its governance structure, which he said persuaded him that with adequate and sustainable resources, it would not only attain its goals but would effectively contribute to the efforts to win the war against cancer in Nigeria.

Professor Lambo said he had demonstrated his support for DHF in many ways including granting permission for the use part of his guest chalet in the town as temporary accommodation for some of its staff in addition to the “token financial contribution” to the foundation by his family as well as persuading the Isanlu Health Development Trust Fund, of which he is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, to not only provide financial support to the foundation but to also grant it permission to use part of the Isanlu Community Health Centre as the foundation’s temporary office.

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He appealed to those at the event and those who were not there to support the foundation to make its vision a reality.

Goodwill messages were also sent by Hon Justice Oguntade and Professor Durosinmi-Etti. In his message, Justice Oguntade expressed regret that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, in a report, indicated that not fewer than 78,000 Nigerians died of different forms of cancer last year. He said Nigerians, individually and collectively should devise practical solutions in implementing the UN’s global action plan for worldwide cooperation in the fight against cancer and commended DHF for its initiative in that regard.

In his own address, Professor Francis Abayomi Durosinmi-Etti congratulated the foundation’s patrons, especially former Health Minister, Professor Lambo, for their support for the initiative. He recalled that it was Professor Lambo, as Minister, who appointed him the Chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Cancer and under whom they produced the first ever Cancer Control Plan for Nigeria.

Quoting GLOBOCA, the online database providing estimate of cancers incidence and mortality in 185 countries, the Executive Director of DHF, Dr. Ekundayo Samuel said it was projected that by the year 2030, about 30 million people worldwide would be living with cancer, with one in two persons having one cancer or another, if nothing was done.

He said new cancer cases in Nigeria rose from 100,000 in 2012 to 500,000 in 2015. While the sub-Sahara Africa region to which Nigeria belonged had access to just about five percent of global cancer resources, he said about 80 percent of newly diagnosed cancer cases occurred in that region. That frightening statistics, he said, led to the establishment of DHF in 2019 in order to salvage the situation.

Dr. Samuel said the six day event would allow DHF play its own part in cancer control because of the continuous rise in the incidence of the cancer burden in Nigeria, Africa and globally.

He expressed the hope that the event would give more enlightenment to Nigerians and those in the Diaspora, especially the underserved populace in the rural communities, clinicians, educational and research institutions, policy makers, relevant government ministries, departments and agencies as well as cancer patients, the media, pharmaceutical industries and other NGOs.

Hundreds of people in Isanlu and its environs, including community leaders, school children, members of various women and religious groups were screened for various cancers as part of the six day event to mark the launch of DHF and the 2021 World Cancer Day.

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