Cancer fears as Uganda's only radiotherapy machine breaks down

KAMPALA (AFP) - Bronia Naturinda was diagnosed with cervical cancer last year and, with help from a charity, travelled 300 kilometres to Kampala for treatment using Uganda's only radiotherapy machine.

The 28-year-old's chance of survival were good until, after waiting for more than three weeks, she was told to go home because the machine she was counting on had broken down beyond repair.

"I felt pain because I thought that if it works, we are going to be okay, we will get recovery," Naturinda said. "It has pained me because I have not yet produced any children. Even I have lost lots of weight, bleeding every time."

The radiotherapy machine was a lifeline when China donated it 21 years ago: since then it has provided around 30,000 life-saving treatments a year and given patients relief from unbearable pain.

It had already broken down several times before its final collapse this month and, although the government paid 325,000 euros (S$494,000) for a replacement three years ago, the bunker needed to house the new machine has never been built.

As a result, the lifeline sits, unused.

The breakdown of the current machine has given fresh urgency to efforts to get the new one operational, but it will take time.

"If they can even work 24 hours, within six months, we should have the bunker ready," said Jackson Orem, who heads Uganda's Cancer Institute at the main Mulago Hospital.

"So that means for the next half of the year we should be installing the equipment and testing it, so by one year, it should be up and running."

The government has tried to ease the row over the delay, but for many cancer patients a year may be too long.

Accusations are flying that the problem is symptomatic of a wider crisis in the health system.

Winnie Watera, an economist at the Parliament Watch civil society organisation says there are many reasons why the machine was allowed to fall into disrepair.

"There is the question of money, there is a question of management, there is a question of planning," she said.

"When all these come together, it makes things work, but if one component is missing - of which, in this case, all are missing - we have a problem."

Patients are now being advised to go to neighbouring Kenya for radiotherapy, a journey too expensive for many.

On Tuesday Nairobi's Aga Khan University Hospital offered free treatment for 400 Ugandan cancer patients.

"Our values as an institution dictate nothing less," chief executive Shawn Bolouki said in a statement. "While we can only treat a small fraction of those requiring care... we will do all we can to help, and we encourage others to follow our lead."