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In the old days communicable diseases like TB were the main concern for Ethiopia but now time has changed; cancer, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases are the biggest challenge in Ethiopia which claimed many thousands life per year. Cancer is one of the non communicable disease which require a big amount of money to treat it. But in countries like Ethiopia who have less physician and less hospitals combating cancer are even more challenging. Mathiwos Wondu-YeEthiopia Cancer Society is established to give awareness on cancer and to help poor cancer victims when they are unable buy and cover their medical cost.
Capital’s Tesfaye Getnet talked with Wondu Bekele Woldemariam, Executive Director of Mathiwos Wondu-YeEthiopia Cancer Society to learn more about Ethiopia’s cancer victims and their challenges. Excerpts.


Capital: Could you tell us how and why your society is established?

Wondu Bekele: My third and youngest son, Mathiwos, was born on June 17, 1999 in Addis Ababa. Until he celebrated his second birthday he was very healthy, energetic and his growth was corresponding to his age. A few days after celebrating his second birthday, he un-expectedly became very ill, and after clinical investigation he was diagnosed with ALL-type Leukemia.

He had been under treatment at Black Lion Hospital for 26 months. Due to lack of cancer medicines here in Ethiopia his family was forced to import from overseas almost all of the very expensive medicines that were recommended by his doctors.

After 22 months of comparative improvement, unexpectedly it was found out that the disease has relapsed, accordingly the Medical Board of the Hospital decided that there was no proper medication left for Mathiwos here in Ethiopia and refereed him to go abroad for possible Bone Marrow transplant which is not possible in Ethiopia.

After intensive search for overseas treatment possibilities in South Africa, Europe, India and North America, National Cancer Institute (NCI/NIH) of Bethesda, MD, USA agreed to accept Mathy for further treatment option including Bone Marrow transplant. Mathy accompanied by his mother and his elder brother, Yonas (donor) was about to fly to Washington D.C, U.S.A. All necessary conditions for the trip such as round trip air ticket, accommodation, visa, etc have been arranged. Before they leave, unfortunately, Mathiwos passed away on September 24, 2003, while he was under treatment at the Black Lion Hospital.

A group of people of different races and nationalities from three different continents, many of whom without knowing each other, tried together everything that is humanly possible to save Mathy’s life. Even though their concerted efforts couldn’t save Mathy’s life, the group, without being frustrated by the outcome, decided to strengthen and consolidate their efforts to honor him and his cause, and as a result established Mathiwos Wondu-YeEthiopia Cancer Society/MWECS/.wondu-bekele-2

The parents of Mathiwos believe forming a cancer society is their way to remember their beloved son and his cause, and to express their thanks to God for all the opportunities he gave them to help their son in every way humanly possible, leaving the rest to the will of God.

The Mathiwos Wondu-YeEthiopia Cancer Society (MWECS) was established at the first General Assembly meeting of the founding members held on April 17, 2004.

Capital: It is said that lung cancer is common?

Wondu: According to UICC each year, almost 8 million people die from cancer and close to 11 million new cases are diagnosed. Every year 1.2 million people die due to lung cancer & lung cancer is number one & account 14.45% of all cancers in terms of prevalence & mortality.

Sixty-three per cent of all deaths worldwide are caused by non-communicable disease (NCDs), for which tobacco use is one of the greatest risk factors. Since tobacco is the greatest single preventable risk factor for almost all non-communicable disease, ratification of the FCTC will help Ethiopia reduce the burden of NCDs in the country.

A recent report published by the American Cancer society found that Africa is poised to become the ‘‘future epicenter of the tobacco epidemic,’’ and warns that the number of adults in Africa who smoke could increase to 572 million by 2100, from 77 million today, unless leaders take step to curb current trends. In fact, the report’s researchers estimate that if African countries put appropriate policy interventions in place, the region could avoid 139 million premature deaths by 2100. In ratifying the FCTC, Ethiopia has taken a strong stand in protecting its citizens from the serious health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure.

Capital: Compared to HIV/AIDS the awareness on cancer is not that much common, what should be done to do more?

Wondu: Cancer kills one in eight or 12% of those who die worldwide and claims twice as many lives as AIDS.

Lack of awareness is another big problem here in Ethiopia. There is lack of awareness about the magnitude of the problem in the country. There are also stigma and misconceptions about cancer; that all cancers are incurable. There is little work done, to date, to promote the awareness that most cancers can be prevented, can be cured if diagnosed early, and quality of life of patients can be improved even if the disease is diagnosed in advanced stage.

Capital:  How can we find cancer in earlier stages before it become worse?

Wondu: The good news is we can prevent 80% of heart and diabetes and up to 40% of cancer by taking simple measures and life style change such as: maintain healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant sources, such as fruit, vegetables, grain, etc., maintain a healthy weight throughout life, adopt a physically active lifestyle, stopping tobacco use and avoiding exposure to passive smoke and avoid or limiting alcohol consumption.

Capital: Do we have enough hospitals and doctors to treat the complicated and the various   cancers and what cancer patients in here most need to hear?

Wondu: In general, Ethiopia lacks sufficient facility and personnel to treat cancer patients. All kinds of cancer patients are flocking to the Black Lion Hospital from all over the country. This trend must be resolved in the future and a concerted effort must be geared toward placing efficient service for cancer patients at their nearest location and regions.

Thanks to our joint concerted & continuous effort, the government has started to pay attention to Non Communicable Diseases (NDCs) including cancer. Thus, six radiotherapy machines/each worth about 4 million USD/ procured & will be installed soon at the six main referral university hospitals, that is Gondar, Mekelle, Jimma, Hawassa , & Haromaya and cancer treatment will be available at regional level for the first time. 118 public hospitals equipped with chemotherapy machines to screen & treat cervical cancer patients & procurement of additional 1,500 Cryotheraphy machine is underway, at least one at each health facility for more than 800 districts all over Ethiopia. Cancer medicines are becoming more available & affordable.

Capital: We heard that Mathiwos Wondu-YeEthiopia Cancer Society is working to convince the government on implementing a tough regulation on cigarette, could you tell us briefly?

Wondu: Ethiopia as a member of United Nation signed Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2004 & ratified by House of Representatives in signatory of this convention, Ethiopia is expected to implement the convention as soon as possible. Ethiopian Food, Medicine, Health Care & Administration Authority/EFMHACA/ leading national effort to develop proclamation on tobacco intended to domesticate FCTC in Ethiopian peculiar conditions .MWECS is collaboratively working with EFMHACA, FMoH, WHO & other partners on how to effectively implement the convention the main objectives are focusing on demand & supply reduction of tobacco & tobacco products in Ethiopia.

Capital: Ministry of Finance and Economic Cooperation is working to increase tax on imported cigarette which ultimately increase the price and discourages the smokers, what do you say about these?

Wondu: Taxation remains the most effective means of reducing the demand for tobacco products. Alcohol, khat, etc. particularly among youth and the poor, and is an important strategy in tobacco control and use of tobacco is responsive to price, and economists have recognized increased prices as one of the most effective means of reducing purchases. Taxation at appropriate levels has a threefold effect on consumption: it provides a barrier to initiation, it reduces consumption among current smokers, and it prevents former smokers from starting again. Alternative livelihood to producers should be sought in the long ran. Taxation could be a reliable source of revenue for non-communicable diseases in general & tobacco control in particular.

On average, a 10% price increase on a pack of cigarettes would be expected to reduce demand for cigarettes by about 4% in high-income countries and by about 5% in low- and middle-income countries, where lower incomes tend to make people more sensitive to price changes. Tobacco-product excise taxes are most important for achieving the health objective of reduced tobacco consumption since they are uniquely applied to tobacco products and raise their prices relative to the prices of other goods and services. Most countries are found to be effective through adopting this approach hence; our government should work harder towards taxation to deliver living friendly environment (smoke free Ethiopia) to the current as well as future generation.

Capital: What are the main achievements that Mathiwos Wondu-YeEthiopia Cancer Society has done so far?

Wondu: The most important achievement the society has registered so far is the development of the National Cancer Control Plan by the Federal Ministry of Health/FMoH. Thanks to financial support from its partners, MWECS competitively recruited and seconded qualified Technical Advisor to FMoH as of February 1, 2015 to support their national cancer control plan development effort. MWECS pays his salary & works on full time basis at FMoH. MWECS, covered & supported consultative Workshops on National Cancer Control Plan & its official launching program. The plan was approved by the FMoH and officially launched at Annual Review Meeting side event held from October 26 to 30, 2015 at Adama. NCCP is one of the first costly & budgeted plans of its kind in Africa and FMoH with its partners have started implementing the Plan.

MWECS is proof positive example that one family truly can make a difference, an organization initiated at the Mathiwos family’s living room, now with more than 22 staffs implementing seven projects, one on pediatric cancer, two on women cancers, two on tobacco control, one NCDs & one national cancer control plan. MWECS at present supports 90 pediatric & 70 breast & cervical cancer patients without including their accompanying parents. The society covers cost of medicines and diagnostic laboratory services not provided by the Black Lion Hospital, transport from and to their regions and food support while the patients are under treatment at the hospital & provide psychosocial support services including transport, food, and accommodation between treatments at its psychosocial support center.