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Experts fear poor eating habits in Zambia will raise cancer cases

posted 28 Feb 2012, 04:54 by Mpelembe   [ updated 28 Feb 2012, 04:55 ]

Health experts say Zambia's cancer burden is increasing amongst all age groups and one of the contributors is a poor diet made up of fast food.

Cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), killing more people than HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria - diseases Africa has had a long history with. Researchers say many African languages still don't have a word for cancer.
But Cancer is becoming a growing burden on a continent with fewer and more expensive health care services and resources than the west.

In Zambia, health experts are worried that an increasingly modern lifestyle is contributing to rising cases of the disease. Urban living, busy schedules, a little bit more money to spend as well as a taste for fried foods is attracting people of all ages to "cancer-causing" ingredients.

"You will see an increase in the number of take aways and restaurants that are selling junk foods, and I will be very honest with you and in my own opinion, junk foods are not good for our health because they are a major contributing factor towards cancer," said John Lungu, a Lusaka resident.

Zambia's health ministry has recorded an increase in cancer cases with 3 percent of the 13 million population dying from the disease in 2010. The most common reported cases are cervical cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer.

Officials at the national Food and Nutrition commission of Zambia say that eating habits in the country have indeed taken an unhealthy turn.

"We are seeing now a continuous trend that a lot of people are actually rushing to eating outside homes and we have these fast foods coming and one of the problems what that is going to cause is what we call, Zambia is likely to go into a situation where by we have more people who are actually overeating, and then when you start over eating its because of the high foods that we are eating and that would lead to what we call overnutrition," said Cassim Masi, Food and Nutrition Commission director.

Experts link the development of cancer tumors to certain foods high in sugar, transfats and simple carbs and advise people to avoid them and eat a low-glycemic diet.

Zambia's first specialized cancer treatment and radiotherapy centre was opened in 2007 to deal with growing cases of the disease. The CDH was set up at a cost of 10 million US dollars and receives technical support, equipment and training from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In the past, the government had to cover patients costs to travel to Zimbabwe or South Africa for specialised treatment at a cost of over 10,000 US dollars per head.

But even with the new facility, the availability of qualified staff and financial resources still remains a challenge for Zambia's cancer control program.

Treatment at the CDH is free. It is also the only facility of its kind in the country and patients outside Lusaka have to spend money to travel back and forth for tests and treatment.

"I have encountered heavy financial challenges towards seeking treatment for my cancer. This is the fourth year I have had the disease, today I'm still hopeful and waiting to see if the radiation therapy I have been receiving will help end my cancer," said Beatrice Malambo, cancer patient.

Doctors at the hospital are hoping to raise more awareness on the role of diet in helping cancer patients and also in prevention.

Professor Groesbeck Parham, a cancer specialist at CDH says the science of cancer -- a disease that by definition is the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells, explains why food is important in its prevention and treatment.

"Every cell in the human body is programmed to die after a certain period of time, but if the DNA is damaged in a certain way, the cell never dies, it becomes immortal and that is one of the major characteristics of a cancerous cell, it has immortality, it never dies. The only way it dies is if it destroys the body in which it is captured. So we need to put foods in our bodies that will bind these free radicals," he said.

Zambia is set to roll out HPV vaccines for cervical cancer this year as part of a nationwide government drive to make diagnosing, preventing and treating the disease a priority.