Doctors share passion for cancer care

IMPROVING HEALTH CARE … Merck Foundation CEO Rasha Kelej stands alongside African doctors, beneficiaries of Merck Foundation Oncology Scholarships, in a collective effort to enhance healthcare standards across the continent. Photo: Contributed

Three Namibian doctors who have benefited from the Merck Foundation Cancer Access Programme have shared their passion for oncology.

One of the beneficiaries, Dr Josephine Augustinus, says: “What prompted me to study oncology is to expand cancer care to other parts of the country within state facilities since it was only offered at Windhoek Central Hospital. During the years 2002-2004 there was a need to introduce oncology cancer care at the Oshakati Intermediate Hospital,” she says.

“I was trained by a doctor in Windhoek before getting the scholarship with the Merck Foundation fellowship in 2017-2018 in medical oncology in Mumbai, India, at the Tata Memorial Hospital.”

Augustinus, as one of the founders of the Oshakati Intermediate Hospital, says during her absence, chemotherapy (a treatment for cancer) was not administered, however, she believes she has since made an impact after returning to serve the nation.

“Our patients need our care, patients used to travel over 700 kilometres every three weeks for medical follow-ups, which have decreased. Only a few patients diagnosed with cancer travel to Windhoek when we don’t have a specific drug to administrate or when they are required to go for radiography therapy treatment, because there is no machine for cancer treatment at the Oshakati Intermediate Hospital. It’s only based at the Windhoek Central Hospital,” Augustinus says.

Dr Ivy Muadinohamba, who is currently completing a postgraduate diploma in medical oncology, says the specialty requires empathy and a genuine love for wanting to help people.

“There are newly diagnosed cancer patients that come to our department every week and most present in advanced stages, where the treatment might not yield optimal results. So, part of me wanting to do oncology is to help create awareness about cancer.”

Muadinohamba found out about the Merck Foundation scholarship opportunities when it was advertised on multiple medical WhatsApp groups.

“I am currently about to conclude module three of the course and I have learnt quite a lot with regards to the pathophysiology of some cancers and their treatment approaches.

“It is unfortunate that the majority of the chemotherapy, hormonal and immuno therapy treatments that we discuss on the online platform is not available in our state hospitals,” she says.

The Merck Foundation has thus far provided over 1 700 scholarships to doctors from over 50 countries in 42 critical and undeserved medical specialties across Asia and Africa.

The foundation is committed to leading Africa to a better future through transforming the landscape of cancer care and improving the health of people on the continent, says Merck Foundation chief executive Rasha Kelej.

Kalej made these remarks in line with World Cancer Day, observed on 4 February annually.

The Merck Foundation continues to provide towards its goal of providing quality healthcare by offering oncology scholarships and continues to raise public awareness on cancer.

Kelej emphasised that transforming and advancing cancer care in Africa can be done by enhancing professional capacity and improving access to high-quality and equitable cancer care across the continent.

“I am proud to share that Merck Foundation together with African First Ladies and health ministries are successfully increasing the limited number of oncologists in Africa by having provided 140 scholarships to young African doctors from 28 countries thus far.

“We continue to offer scholarships based on applications received every year and we are also making history by providing these important scholarships for the first oncologists and the first cancer care teams in many countries across Africa,” she says.

The Cancer Access Programme aims to build quality and equitable cancer care capacity in Africa by increasing the limited number of oncologists and developing the first multidisciplinary cancer care teams across the continent.

African countries that have benefited from the training in oncology and first cancer care teams are Namibia, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Liberia, Guinea Conakry, Central African Republic, Chad, Burundi, Malawi, Niger, Zambia and Zimbabwe, among others.

Launched in 2016, the Merck Foundation Cancer Access Programme provides one, two- and three-year fellowships, post graduate diplomas and masters degrees in oncology, with clinical training conducted in India, Egypt and Kenya.

The foundation has also created awareness materials, including awareness leaflets and videos on cancer prevention and early detection.

The Merck Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA Germany, marked World Cancer Day 2024 under the theme: ‘Close the Care Gap’.

As per World Health Organisation (WHO) data, every year Africa records around 1,1 million new cases of cancer, resulting in up to 700 000 deaths.

The mortality rate of cancer patients is very high in Africa, as compared to the rest of the world.

One of the key reasons is late diagnosis. Moreover, Africa has only 3% of the world’s cancer treatment.

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