AFRICA: Virtual university to help control cancer

The International Atomic Energy Agency and the Swiss-based pharmaceutical firm Roche launched an initiative - Education for Cancer in African Regions, or EDUCARE - on 28 April to help tackle acute shortages of skilled cancer professionals in Africa. The project is being piloted in Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

EDUCARE will facilitate the exchange of knowledge and skills and training at both the provider and national levels.

The five-year IAEA-Roche partnership was formed under the stewardship of the IAEA's Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy , an innovative project that seeks to scale-up cancer control assistance to low- and middle-income countries by ensuring that investments in cancer diagnosis and treatment are embedded within comprehensive national cancer control plans.

Besides establishing a joint IAEA-World Health Organization regional network that links cancer centres in the pilot countries for training, EDUCARE will assist in the design and implementation of a comprehensive cancer control curriculum that is appropriate to the specific needs of the pilot countries.

The Virtual University for Cancer Control, VUCC, will develop a web-based portal to deliver curriculum content and establish a certification process.

Using a model of institutional exchange in training, consultation and research, the virtual university will cooperate with cancer centres associated with medical faculties in the four African countries, as well as leading research institutions in other countries in the region such as Egypt and South Africa.

To initiate VUCCnet, skills in cancer centres will be upgraded through an intensive, high quality five-year training programme for health care workers. Four centres will be become recognised national cancer centres of competence, enabling access to diagnostic testing and cancer treatment for a catchment area of around 16 million people.

VUCCnet will also tackle the brain drain of African medical professionals, which not only has a negative impact on the quality and availability of health care in African countries but also represents a huge loss of government investment in education and training.

This will be done by expanding radiotherapy facilities, improving working conditions and salaries, and offering better career and training opportunities to cancer care professionals.

According to WHO, there were 667,000 new cancer cases in Africa in 2008, and more than half a million cancer deaths. These figures are expected to rise dramatically over the next decade.

The lack of trained health care workers in oncology in sub-Saharan Africa has been cited as one of the key barriers to improved health. It is estimated that Africa currently has a shortage of more than 818,000 health workers.

Cancer accounts for 12.5% of all deaths worldwide - more than HIV-Aids, tuberculosis and malaria combined. By 2020, there are expected to be 15 million new cases of cancer every year, 70% of which will be in developing countries.