Third Eye

Why spiralling cancer cases should concern us

Thursday, November 4th, 2021 00:00 |
Cancer patients at the Cancer centre in Coast General Hospital in Mombasa undergoing treatment sessions. Photo/PD/NDEGWA GATHUNGU

Last month, Kenya joined the rest of the world in celebrating the Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  

Over the four weeks, we heard and watched great testimonies of cancer survivors. Conversely, many have been the stories of individuals and their families brought down to their knees by the debilitating health, social and economic effects of cancer.

The climate change phenomenon is also a contributing factor to some hitherto unknown or relatively harmless health conditions. According to a 2015 study undertaken by the Institute of Economic Affairs, the annual cancer death rate currently stands at six per cent, double the country’s birth rate. In addition, 12 per cent of Kenyans are at risk of dying from cancer. 

According to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, cancer deaths increased steadily from 11,995 in 2010 to 14,175 in 2014, representing an increase of 18 per cent within five years. Sadly, four out of five cancer cases are diagnosed at the penultimate stage, leaving little chance for survival.

Indeed, cancer has become the third highest cause of death in the country after both infectious and cardiovascular diseases. If nothing is done urgently, cancer will soon cripple the country’s healthcare system.

For example, out of the Sh38 billion allocated to the Health ministry for the country’s medical equipment project last year, Sh21 billion went to cancer care (mainly procurement of diagnosis machines). Therefore, there is need to investigate what has happened over the last decade that has led to the spiralling of cancer cases.

While cancer has been attributed largely to natural and hereditary factors, there is an emerging school of thought that environmental factors are equally to blame. Researchers have come up with different categories of environmental factors associated with cancer. 

Top of these are proven risks, where an increased incidence of cancer has clearly been associated with exposure to a known carcinogen. This includes both active and passive tobacco smoking, air pollution, drinking alcohol and excessive exposure to some toxic chemicals like asbestos.

The second category includes risks from exposure to known carcinogens or agents considered probably to be carcinogenic. This includes chemicals found in processed meats, and ingestion of foods and fluids with lead and mercury.

The third category of risks involves exposure to an agent that may be carcinogenic, though the evidence comes primarily from laboratory studies involving animals. This includes hair dyes and living near power lines and telecommunication masts.

Other elements that have been faulted amidst ongoing research include mobile phones, micro-ovens, some food additives and cosmetics, dental fillings and breast implants.

Available evidence indicates that of all cancer-related deaths, almost 25-30 per cent are tobacco-related, as many as 30-35 per cent  are linked to diet, about 15-20 per cent are due to infections, and the remaining percentage are due to other factors like radiation, stress and environmental pollutants.

Mainly, questions are being raised about the effect of mobile phone technology, with increasing suspicion that there could be a close connection between mobile phones, brain tumours and breast cancer.

For instance, in May 2011, the World Health Organisation listed mobile phone use in the same “carcinogenic hazard” as lead, engine exhaust and chloroform, saying that radiation from cell phones can possibly cause cancer.

Could there be a relationship between cervical cancer and use of some brands of tampons? Could the causes of colon cancer be as result of something in the food or low quality contaminated toilet paper?

 More research is needed to study the correlation between increased cases of certain cancers and the prevalence of corresponding agents in the environment. Ultimately, we must undergo drastic lifestyle changes if humankind is to survive for generations to come. 

The writer comments on international affairs

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