Cancer screening equipment remains underused at the Nyeri County Referral Hospital against the backdrop of rising breast cancer cases.
Lack of awareness and myths surrounding a mammography — the examination of the breast for cancer symptoms — have contributed to the late diagnosis of patients in the county.
Six years since the county received a mammography machine under the national government’s Managed Equipment Services scheme, records show it remains grossly underused. The machine only conducts two exams a day against a capacity of 15 per hour.
“This implies a gross underutilisation of the machine. We need to demystify the myths surrounding the dangers of taking a mammography exam,” said Nyeri deputy governor, Dr Caroline Karugu.
Nyeri county has launched a 30-day mammography campaign, seeking to advocate early screening among women and men above the age of 40.
Head of medical services in the county Nelson Muriu said through the campaign they have learnt that many women were unaware the machine existed.
“Primarily, the reason most women don’t come forward for screening is lack of awareness since most of them come to hospital when the cancer has already advanced,” he said.
For some women the fear of X-rays and radiation has hindered them from going for a mammography. Some women assume the machine exposes them to rays that cause cancer, further endangering their lives.
“They think that undergoing the screening through mammography automatically causes cancer,” Ms Karugu said.
Further, it was noted that women shy away from screening as they assume a mammogram is expensive. However, at the county referral hospital, the screening is conducted for free.
Oncology nurse Lydia Warui assured women that testing through a machine was not painful, and was safe. It is said that what you do not know will not kill you, but in this case what you know will save your life,” she noted.
This comes after a study done by the county government revealed that a third of cancer cases reported at the referral hospital were of women suffering from breast cancer.
According to the report, cervical cancer comes second at 17 per cent, a finding that has triggered a free Pap smear screening in the town’s health centre every Wednesday since the beginning of this month.
Cancer of the breast is the leading type of disease with approximately 6,000 new cases annually, according to data from cancer monitoring organisations. “We are targeting over 10, 000 women aged 40 years and above which is the recommended age for a mammography,” said Dr Karugu who is also the ambassador for the screening campaign.
The report shows that prostate cancer is the most prevalent among men seeking treatment at the county hospital at 18 per cent followed by oesophagus cancer at 16 per cent. “We are noticing a very high trend in the cases of oesophagus cancer among men and we need more research to find out the reason for the increased numbers,” she added.
Out of 246 people from Central region seeking treatment at the county referral hospital, 76 per cent are Nyeri residents with various cancers with the 24 per cent being referrals from eight neighbouring counties.
Nine per cent come from Nyandarua County, followed by Kirinyaga and Murang’a at five per cent and Embu and Laikipia at two per cent, Meru (one per cent) while Kiambu and Nakuru represent the lowest number at 0.4 per cent.
Women are the most affected by the cancer scourge in the region at 67 per cent compared to men at 33 per cent, shows the report.
The cancer registry report at the hospital also noted that a majority of the patients are aged over 50 at 62 per cent followed by those aged between 25 and 49 at 35 per cent. Children aged between 15 and 24 have taken two per cent of the disease burden.
The government has been urged to expedite plans to construct a cancer screening centre fully equipped with chemo and radiography services.
Access to treatment by cancer patients in the country puts thousands of them at risk as they seek to make use of the three functional radiotherapy machines at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH).
Rising cancer cases in the region have highlighted a need for the equipment and specialist doctors in hospitals. “We would like the government to fulfil its promise to construct a cancer centre in Nyeri to alleviate the burden of the hundreds of patients seeking treatment. The need is real here,” said Ms Karugu.
The national government has pledged to construct a Sh400 million cancer centre at the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology to ease the burden on KNH.
Other centres were to be built in Kisii, Mombasa and Nakuru counties to administer chemotherapy services and later scale up to provide radiotherapy services.
Nyeri is a pilot county for the Universal Health Coverage scheme due to its lifestyle disease burden for cases such as diabetes and cancer.