As Cancer Tears Through Africa, Drug Makers Draw Up a Battle Plan

Slow Progress

Even with cheaper drugs, progress against cancer in Africa will be slower than it was against AIDS, all parties to the deal warned.

AIDS is caused by a single pathogen that can be suppressed, albeit not cured, with a daily three-drug pill.

Cancer — out-of-control multiplication of the body’s own cells — comprises an entire family of diseases. Treatment often entails surgery, radiation and chemotherapy involving complex mixes of drugs.

Kenya offers a glimpse at the possibilities.

Its national health insurance plan, which charges annual premiums of $18 to $200 depending on income, began covering cancer only two years ago. Now, about 8 percent of its payouts are for the disease.

Three years ago, patients could wait 18 months for radiotherapy at Kenyatta National Hospital, the only one poor people could afford; many died waiting. Now, with insurance covering radiation in private hospitals, the wait is gone.

In Nairobi Hospital, a private institution that was once the European Hospital, Christine Kimburi, a 42-year-old property manager with 11-year-old twins, rested comfortably in a bed getting an infusion for her choriocarcinoma, a cancer of the uterine lining that erupted after a failed pregnancy.


A sign outside Nairobi, Kenya, advertising local cancer care from the Aga Khan University Hospital.

Joe Van Eeckhout for The New York Times

She had surgery and is on her fifth chemo round. Her national insurance covers four rounds a year, and her husband’s covers four more.

With luck, that is all she will need. Choriocarcinoma is often curable.

“The mass they removed was not cancerous — we thank God for that,” she said. “And I’ve had nil side effects from the chemo.”

But Kenya remains exceptional.

When she first looked at treatment in Africa, Dr. O’Brien said, “I was just blown away because so little attention was being paid.”

“In America, since the 1960s, we’ve turned cancer from this frightening, inevitably deadly disease into something very fightable,” she added. “That human triumph has not crossed the border into Africa yet.”

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