Fighting childhood cancer in Africa

Today is a day of celebration for children’s health care on the African continent as the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital shows off its completed state-of-the-art facilities to the media and VIP guests for the first time – ahead of receiving its first patients in the New Year.

It is also a wonderful day for Islamic Relief, which has contributed $7.7 million to the project to fund the children’s oncology unit. Cancer is a blight on the lives of children all over the world but specialist treatment facilities on the African continent are particularly few and far between. This hospital promises to be a lifeline for many children, and a fitting addition to the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who passed away three years ago on Monday.

Although HIV/AIDS infections amongst children remain a critical health priority in sub-Saharan Africa, cancer is emerging as a major cause of childhood death on the African continent. With our regional footprint in Southern Africa, this reality has become self-evident through our development programmes within the Southern African Development Community region, where we have worked to mitigate the effects of poverty on the indigenous populations of the area.

Currently, more than 450 million children live on the African continent. Yet there are only four specialist children’s hospitals – compared to about 20 in the UK. In addition, statistics have shown that more than 40% of South African children with cancer never reach a specialist treatment centre, with this figure rising to 80% in other parts of the continent.

With high levels of poverty and the lack of equipped healthcare facilities, diagnosis of cancer often takes place too late or the patient is forced to seek medical assistance from primary healthcare facilities that lack the sophisticated imaging equipment and trained staff. This is corroborated by the International Society of Paediatric Oncology (SIOP), who state that treating cancer in Africa has been problematic as it remains a “largely unknown” disease within communities – especially in rural areas.

As a humanitarian organization, we believe that access to quality healthcare is a universal right, not a privilege reserved for those with wealth. We also recognise the great need for specialist paediatric services on the African continent, if the next generation of Africans are to survive and flourish. It is for this reason that we partnered with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital to build a state-of-the-art oncology unit in South Africa.
This oncology unit will deliver specialist care for children with cancer and will help change these stark statistics by providing cutting-edge paediatric services. As a hub for the region as a whole, the hospital will build human capacity through training and research. It will ensure more children receive the specialist treatment and care that they need. Offering treatment to children across Africa, the hospital will also develop clinical excellence through training for clinical staff and health professionals, as well as research programmes.

Ultimately, The Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital is Nelson Mandela’s lasting wish for the children of Africa, and his legacy for future generations to come. The 200-bed specialist hospital will set the standard for modern, child-centered healthcare facilities in Africa. It will serve children in South Africa and from across the continent. No child will be turned away because they cannot pay.

Islamic Relief’s International Programmes Director, Waseem Ahmad, is one of three representatives of major donors to the project speaking at today’s launch. Also attending with Waseem are representatives of Islamic Relief USA including the CEO, Anwar Khan; and representatives of Islamic Relief UK including the Deputy Director, Tufail Hussain. Our US and UK offices have been the two biggest contributors to the $7.7 million raised for the hospital by the Islamic Relief global family, donating $1.75m and $2.5m respectively.

As an organization, we have urged our donors around the world to help us make a substantive difference on the African continent, through removing barriers to high-quality healthcare. Much has already been done by our offices around the world, as we collectively unite to ensure every child in Africa has the opportunity to reach their full potential.

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