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‘We need accurate data to tackle challenges posed by cancer’

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Zainab Bagudu

The Wife of Kebbi State Governor, Dr. Zainab Bagudu, is the founder of Medicaid Cancer Awareness Foundation, a platform dedicated to the eradication of cancer in Nigeria. The first lady who clocked 50 years this week, in this interview with Adelowo Adebumiti, Joke Akanmu, Mathew Ogune and Shola Ayelabola, spoke about the need for data registries on health, NHIS coverage for Nigerians on cancer and the role of the foundation in creating awareness and supporting victims of the scourge in the country.

What is Medicaid Cancer Awareness Foundation?
It is a foundation we started principally to look at issues surrounding cancer in Nigeria, especially in Northern Nigeria. Some of these issues include awareness, knowledge, attitude of the people, provision of treatment facilities and diagnosis.

What informed your decision to set up the foundation?
Before, we were primarily a diagnostic centre and that is the aspect of business I started doing and we were offering tests for women in particular, which include prostrate, breast, and mammogram. Those were tests we conducted to detect cancer. Then we started getting a lot of enquiries from people relating to what to do, where to go if this thing I have in my breast is cancer and so on. So we had to set up the foundation to deal with all these issues and that was how the Medicaid came about. We are focused on creating awareness. We have also done a lot of screening to date. I am sure that because of our unique position of owning a mammogram, we are the only NGO in this part of the country that has the highest number of mammograms for free, we do the ones we did under the foundation for free. We moved on following demand of the people to talking about cancer. We started with awareness, screening and later treatment. We also started looking at funding treatments and how to help people get treated. So basically that is what the foundation is set up to do.

Are you working with other stakeholders to achieve this?
The approach that we took is a holistic one in Medicaid Cancer Foundation, we don’t work alone. For instance, we work with people from the sports industry because that lifestyle is directly related to health. Also, it is directly related to cancer because if you eat the right food and you do the right exercise from the right age, you have higher chances of not getting cancer. We also focus on education. How do we expect our young girls to check their breasts every month if you don’t empower them? How can we expected them to learn how to go to a diagnostic centre and do test if they don’t have the resources for them.

To have those resources they need to go to school and be empowered with some skills. What I do with my office as the wife of a governor using the foundation is to recognise these challenges and devise means to surmount them and reach the people. In Kebbi, we have school health clubs, and we go to all the girls’ schools talking to them about cancer, showing them how to examine their breasts. We focus on cancer and on sickle cell because these are two major issues among people in Nigeria and we tell them what to do. I physically go with my team to these schools; we would usually held a programme and activities where they show me what they have learnt. They hold dramas, competitions and all that and we give them gifts just to encourage them. Today in Kebbi State, we have a much higher level of awareness on cancer because that is what I have picked to do as my work. It has been in existence even before my husband became the governor and it was very easy for me to continue doing it. We were working there, in Zamfara State and in Abuja, so it was easy for us to do it in Kebbi. Of course, with this new responsibility and platform, our aim is that by the end of his tenure, all the girls in our schools would come out knowing what their genotype is. At least we are giving them the equipment they need to make decisions when they are getting married. The diagnostic centre came about due to a gap that I noticed in the diagnostics treatment and management of patients in Nigeria. When I came back to the country and I was seeing patients, I was one of the pioneers that set up the pediatric unit, but I didn’t have the backup that I am used to in my nine to 10 years abroad. The labs were failing me and I needed them to be able to get the right diagnosis. We started from that level and from there started a diagnosis centre. It was formed as a result of the need of people around me. Similarly the foundation came about from the need that arose from the patients we were seeing at the diagnostic centre. We have a mammogram, and women are coming to do mammograms. I am a female doctor, they collected their results, they would come to me or I meet them at the corridor. They would say, “doctor you said I should do mammogram, I have done it, what should I do?” I can’t spend my time as the CEO of the centre doing that neither can the doctors or the staff we are employing in the mammogram room or those that are doing the scanning and start going to the villages to talk about what cancer is. So we decided to have a foundation, an NGO that is solely dedicated to looking out for these things because the need was enormous. Even then, we started from awareness, prevention, and screening. And they said okay I have done the test and this is what I found, what do I do? So you now have to go into treatment, you provide treatment options.

What are the peculiar challenges facing the foundation in creating awareness about cancer in the state?
We raise funds every year and we help as many patients as we can. Our major fund raising is in October and we come up with different ways of raising these funds. Funding is one of the least challenges because funding is a challenge everywhere. Every thing you do, you know you need money. Some people have money but don’t know where to go. They don’t believe in medicine or in science. They want to go to a traditional healer, fake healers, and this is what we deal with on a daily basis. The combination of illiteracy bind with suspicious cultural beliefs is horrible and that is what is killing us in sub-Sahara Africa. We have all kinds of superstitious beliefs and we interpret it as it suits us, which becomes a problem. When you get rid of basic illnesses, if you have a chest infection and you have an antibiotic that will kill it, by the time we get rid of all the basic infections, cough, cold, malaria, fever that is when you get the chance to see the higher ones. I am going round schools in Kebbi talking to girls about cancer. We try as much as possible to get to the villages to talk to the rural women and so on. But it is not as organised as those school campaigns.

Have you recorded any success so far in your campaigns?
A lot of successes have been enumerated. We have been able to raise the kind of funds that we never got when we started. We didn’t think that we were going to raise that kind of amount and the enthusiasm that I get from the younger generation is amazing. They are my favourite people because, whatever you teach young people, you are helping them to improve the generations that are coming. Some of them don’t even have children yet and they don’t have children with the knowledge that they now have.

Can you identify any critical areas where there is need to intensify efforts to combat cancer in the country?
This year we also ventured into something new that we haven’t done before and that is the importance of accurate data. We had a stakeholder conference were we brought big minds, all related to the field of cancer and data collection. We had a stakeholder meeting in Kebbi in October. The aim was to set up proper cancer registry in the country. Nigeria has just nine cancer registries on paper and only three are functional. We need accurate data to tackle the problem of cancer. We must sort out our primary health care systems even as it relates to cancer. As it stands now, cancer treatment is not offered by the NHIS. Although, there is a lot of talk about it and they claimed they are doing it but the fact is that it is not offered by the NHIS. You cannot run to the NHIS and get treatment for cancer anywhere in Nigeria.

What do you propose stakeholders need to focus on to reduce cancer in Nigeria?
We do have outreaches. I work with the wives of governors in the South that are involved in cancer including Oyo, Ogun, Kwara also Cross River and we do a lot of work together, especially on advocacy. But logistically, it is difficult for us to physically go everywhere. But we go where they are having programmes, we join their screenings, we go round as much as we can. To partner with the Federal Government is a difficult one. So we join the programme whenever the government calls upon us. Like other NGOs we are there and we are part of stakeholders meetings. We were part of the stakeholders’ forum that came together for almost a year and advocated, went to the Senate, House of Reps for the bill on Cancer Relief Centre to be sponsored until it was eventually passed. Those are the kind of things that we do on our own level, when there is a national event related to cancer we join as much as we can they support them.

We work with associations, the local media, print media, we are always partnering with them. I can always be on Television especially in Kebbi talking about topics that has to do with cancer. It really helps because people get to hear even in our local media, in our own local dialect in Hausa. We have this breast skit that is created for local women, that tells women how to examine their breasts.

The single message that we are giving out to young girls is check your breasts every month. We encourage them to form the habit of checking themselves every month. Also check your breasts after your period. By then the breast is less tender. Look for any abnormalities, not just bumps. It could be the skin changes, the redness, nipple discharge, pain, look for it as long as it is abnormal and get yourself checked by a trained medical personnel.


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