After 21 years of loyal service not only to Ugandans but also to some patients from Burundi, South Sudan, Western Kenya, and Rwanda, Uganda’s only radiotherapy machine has kicked its last.
The machine once hosted at Mulago Hospital, the country’s largest and recently moved to the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI) has left more than 2,000 with no access to radiotherapy and cancer sufferers have to source other alternatives that will be made even more expensive by the cost of traveling and upkeep.
Apparently, before it broke down, it has been scheduled for replacement for three years, but according to the health minister, Elioda Tumwesigye, “funding challenges” halted the progress.
The Director of the country’s cancer institute at the Mulago Hospital noted that the machine which was donated as a secondhand in 1995, was beyond repair and even as they seek to repair, it can be harmful to patients.
“The machine is too old. We shall try fixing it but even when we succeed, it will be dangerous for us to use it because we are dealing with radiation which can cause severe side effects to the patients,” Dr. Jackson Orem told the Daily Monitor.
According to the BBC, the capital's Mulago Hospital gets 44,000 new referrals a year from Uganda, as well as from neighboring countries.
In a press conference hurriedly organized by the Uganda Cancer Institute to address the matter led by the government’s health minister, UCI claimed that only 20 percent of cancer patients will be affected.
But health professionals and oncologists estimate that more than 75 percent cancer patients will be affected and will need to look for alternatives.
President Museveni’s upkeep and other residence expenses
Meanwhile, even as the public cry over the country's failing health sector, President Yoweri Museveni’s upkeep and other expenses related to his residence will cost the east African nation 257 billion Ugandan shillings (approximately $77M). On the other hand, a supplementary request from the National Medical Stores for 68bn shillings to buy drugs was ignored.
If only about 15 percent of this allocation was set aside, the country would get a new machine and the bunkers to house it.
But no, patients have to wait for six months to access radiotherapy at UCI.
"Early this morning, I had a meeting with secretary to the treasury over concerns about the radiotherapy machine. I am glad to tell you that we have been given ago ahead to expeditiously handle the process of building the bunker for the radiotherapy machine," Tumwesigye told lawmakers sitting on the Health committee last week.
Despite the fact that a decision was taken in 2013 to replace the machine, the government has been slow with the plan especially the building of the bunker. According to Dr Jackson Orem, the UCI director, the government paid for the equipment three years ago, but it cannot be used due to the absence of a suitable bunker.
In April last year, he told Uganda’s Observer newspaper that the construction of the bunker would begin two months’ later, and predicted the country would have new radiotherapy equipment inside a year.
One year later, the bunker is still not complete, and now the cobalt-60 machine is out of service. He now says that “if everything worked like a clock”, modern equipment would be in place in a year.
In that one year, Orem says that cancer patients can be adequately supported through surgery and manage pain with morphine.
“I think one thing I can say is that radiotherapy is not a magic bullet – that once you are given [it], cancer is cured. Far from it,” says Orem, who has been at UCI for 25 years.
Radiotherapy to many cancer patients in Uganda is the only bullet they know could cure their plight.
As people wait for a new machine, patients like Victoria Akware, who sold her land to facilitate her journey to Kampala to get the treatment has been left stranded. Since she cannot afford to travel to neighboring Kenya for the radiotherapy treatment, she only prays.
"I feel terrible, plus I'm in pain and I don't have money for expenses," Ms Akware says. "We are broke, there is no money to do anything. What remains is to pray to God to help me," she told BBC.
Image credit: UCI