Violence, Cancer, and the Eastern Congo

The lack of healthcare infrastructure and the uncontrolled violence kill too many in Africa.

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A patient has her blood pressure tested in a high care ward at the Ndlovu Medical Center (NBC) in Elandsdoorn, South Africa, Friday, Nov. 24, 2006. The South African government, long under fire for doing too little to prevent the spread of AIDS and treatment victims of the disease, recently revamped its strategy. It gave responsibility to Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ncguka and effectively sidelined Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who has been criticized for praising garlic, lemons and the African potato as remedies while disparaging the benefits of antiretroviral medicines.

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

There are few words in the English language, or in most other languages I suspect, that are as frightening as the word 'cancer'. In most countries it is a word synonymous with a death sentence to be told one has cancer. It is no longer an automatic death sentence in areas with developed medicine and treatment facilities, but in much of the world, those facilities are still largely unattainable to the masses. In Nigeria, for instance, only one MRI machine exists in the country of more than 150 million people. On scale, this would be the same as if the United States had only one MRI machine east of the Mississippi and one west of the Mississippi.

Cancer now kills far more in Africa than does AIDS, but the resources we have dedicated to AIDS, as opposed to noncommunicable diseases such as cancer far outweigh that to which we allot to cancer. Neither can we treat cancers so simply as there are so many different types of cancers. Each cancer has its own distinct traits, requiring different treatments to slow or kill its growth. We have become human laboratories with our bodies assaulted by foreign chemicals not in existence 50 years ago, greater ultraviolet ray penetration from the sun, contaminants in our water supplies, and the list goes on, almost endlessly it seems. Africa, with its lack of health infrastructure once again finds itself having drawn the short straws in healthcare.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

Cancers are essentially runaway growth of previously unspecialized stem cells, altered by genetic mutations, outside influences or other influences still beyond our complete understanding. We are finding new ways to combat their growth, often successfully, but perseverance is required as much as wisdom. 

Cancer may also be seen as a metaphor for uncontrolled violence that kills just as many if not more in Africa. One might say that the eastern Congo suffers from its own form of cancer, where uncontrolled violence by unspecialized armies continues unabated, spreading uncontained to engulf other areas of the political body, infecting these other national organs with the same toxic bodies making health of nations impossible. More than five million people have died from the undeclared wars that rage in the eastern Congo. These wars are waged not by one single army, but by many different armed entities, each with its own imprint, each with their own type of virus, and each requiring their own solutions to end its spread. Women are systematically raped by the hundreds of thousands, children slaughtered or kidnapped to become part of the cancerous armies of the night, and yet we do little to stop its spread, seemingly as helpless against this form of cancer as we were 50 years ago against the biological form limited to individual bodies.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Given The Current Deficit Crisis, Should Foreign Aid Be Cut?]

The cancer of the eastern Congo has spread in various ways to its neighboring regions—Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda—and it has affected its larger entity, the whole of the Democratic Republic of Congo, rendering one of the richest nations in resources on the planet an impotent economic and political nation, when it could be so different with political will. A human body infected with cancer cannot operate as if it is a totally healthy body.  The whole body is affected by a disease in another part of it. A nation is incapacitated by its own illness.   

The violence of the eastern Congo is not simply a disease limited to a region, but a cancer that will halt the development of central Africa unless we have the political will to end its curse as we also fight our own individual cancers. On a continent projected to be severely affected by climate change, the waters of the Congo region will be essential to survival. These same waters can also provide enough electricity to light the entire continent, if harnessed properly. Yet, it cannot be so if the body suffers from the spread of the cancer of the eastern Congo. No entity can thrive when such an illness cannot be contained. It is in the interest of all of Africa and beyond to end the cancer of the eastern Congo.

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