Education, early detection and accessibility key to addressing SA’s cancer crisis

Although numerous obstacles hinder access to cutting-edge innovative medicines for combating cancer, the path to saving millions of lives lies in the collaborative effort between public and private systems to bridge the accessibility divide and mitigate the mortality rate associated with the disease, writes Bada Pharasi, CEO of The Innovative Pharmaceutical Association South Africa, and Zodwa Sithole, Head of Advocacy at the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA).


As the second leading cause of death worldwide1, cancer is a disease that continues to plague the modern world, impacting millions of lives and posing significant challenges to healthcare systems and societies globally.

South Africa is no exception, ranking third in Africa in terms of the burden of the disease2. Cancer incidence is rising In South Africa, with a report by the National Cancer Registry of the Department of Health and Stats SA’s mortality and causes of death data, suggesting that cancer deaths increased by 29.3% from 33,720 in 2008, to 43,613 in 20183.

The report added that from 2008 to 2018, black African population groups experienced a 68.6% increase in cancer-related deaths; the coloured population experienced a 68.3% increase; Indian or Asian population groups a 53% increase; and the white population group a 23.4% increase3.


The complexities of cancer treatments in South Africa

Despite the continuous development, registration and deployment of innovative medicines and treatments, accessibility to these remains a challenge, hindering their timely administration to those who need them most.

With over 84% of South Africans reliant on the public healthcare system,4, the severity of the situation is compounded by the fact that a mere 10 hospitals nationwide can adequately meet their needs and offer suitable care should they be diagnosed with cancer5.

Given that 31.67% of the South African population resides in rural areas6, it is highly likely that only basic healthcare services are rendered in these regions, with either a long, costly, and difficult commute, or leaving the disease to manifest being the only alternatives.

For those reliant on the public healthcare system, the process of being referred to an oncologist can often take months, significantly delaying the effectiveness of available treatments.

Misconceptions and myths around cancer are another debilitating factor, with many mistakenly believing that if their family lacks a history of cancer, they won’t be affected, or that they are too young to be diagnosed with it. This thinking can lead to patients avoiding seeking medical care, compounded by fear or stigma that can delay diagnosis and treatment and negatively impact cancer outcomes.


Solutions to solving the cancer crisis

Central to solving the country’s cancer crisis is to improve patient outcomes. This means bolstering education, accessibility and availability of treatments, early detection efforts, and collaboration between public and private enterprises.

Knowledge is not only wealth, but health. To drive education around cancer, utilising diverse communication channels is essential to bridging information disparities, and ensuring accurate and accessible information is disseminated in all languages for easy comprehension.

Religious and traditional leaders, who hold significant influence in communities, can be engaged to help educate communities and dispel myths about the disease. Furthermore, campaigns that provide evidence-based information about cancer, its risk factors, prevention, and early detection can help raise awareness and increase the uptake of cancer screening and vaccination programmes.

To succeed in the battle against cancer, South Africa must prioritise early detection initiatives and allocate sufficient funding to support them, drive accessibility of essential medicines and treatments, and foster collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Transforming South Africa’s cancer crisis requires urgent action and a comprehensive strategy. By prioritising early detection, championing accessibility, and spearheading collaboration between the public and private sectors, we can be the change we want to see in the country and the driving force in propelling South Africa forward.



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