Professor Yacouba Harouna is a surgeon at the university hospital in Niamey, Niger. He is working in collaboration with WAHA International on a pilot project aiming to increase access to screening of breast cancer, and recently presented his research at the francophone conference on the fight against cancer in developing countries, ‘les 4èmes journées francophones de lute contre le cancer pour les pays émergents’, organised by l’Alliance Modiale Contre le Cancer (AMCC), or World Alliance against Cancer.
What were the most significant conclusions of this conference?
An important problem in Africa is that cancers are diagnosed late. In Africa, we don’t have the same view of cancer, and we don’t experience it in the same way as those living in developed countries. Our experience of cancer is that which is diagnosed late, and we need to reach a stage when we can diagnose this disease in its early stages.
What do you think are the developments that are most needed to combat cancer in developing countries?
At the moment we are unable to treat all those who require it with radiotherapy and chemotherapy, as it is not available, or only limited, in all countries, and the drugs are very, very costly. Therefore, we shouldn’t think that things will change tomorrow, just because we’ve seen how cancer is treated in Europe. I don’t think that things will change in the next ten years. So, to improve the treatment of cancer, knowing that the one treatment that is accessible to all is surgery, we need to be able to diagnose cancers early, at the stage where the surgery that is available to us will suffice. We need to diagnose patients at a stage when we can treat them with what we have, and what we have is surgery.
What do you think are the most difficult barriers to overcome in this field?
Firstly, there are the traditions. If I take, for example, cervical cancer, there many interpretations of the symptoms, so patients almost always come at a stage when the disease has already progressed. So, if we are able to overcome these traditional interpretations, we we’ll be able to see them much sooner. We need to educate women about the symptoms of cancer. We’ve already started campaigns, using TV and radio programmes, and now almost all women in the more urban areas know the symptoms, which has enabled us to diagnose cancers at an earlier stage. However, there is still more work to be done.
The second barrier is the availability of treatments in sub-Saharan African countries, where hospitals often lack radiotherapy, chemotherapy or both. This is not going to change in the near future, which is why our work with WAHA aims to demonstrate that for cancer, the sooner we can diagnose it, the less costly it is to treat. Furthermore, it’s more effective and more durable.
What are your hopes for the future in this domain?
I’m currently working with WAHA International, and in the very near future we will be launching pilot projects across three countries, to reverse the tendency for individuals to present with symptoms at a late stage in their disease. We need to be able to see these patients at a stage where we can treat them successfully with