By Calvin J. Ouma
Equatorial Africa—and especially western Kenya—is home to a form of cancer known as Burkitt’s lymphoma. For children in Equatorial Africa up to 11 years old, it is the most common malignancy. Yet little data exists on the disease burden created attributed to Burkitt’s in the country.
Burkitt’s lymphoma is most prevalent in Africa’s tropical regions, especially the malaria-prone lake regions. Children affected with this variant of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma often have had chronic malaria.
But Burkitt’s can be difficult to diagnose at first. Treatment is expensive, and only a few facilities in all of Kenya are equipped to perform biopsies. Luckily, aid from several international organizations is helping more and more patients from the country’s most remote regions.
Typically, Burkitt’s starts as a small swelling in the facial area that may be hard to distinguish from other little lumps as it grows to a large and dangerous tumor. The African type of Burkitt’s lymphoma also is closely associated with the Epstein-Barre virus, the main cause of infectious mononucleosis. People with HIV have an increased risk for Burkitt’s, which is most commonly found in males.
Burkitt’s usually is curable through chemotherapy. But the high cost of treatment means that without financial assistance, many Burkitt’s patients lose their lives.
Patients in Kenya’s far western region, the lake district, must be transported to the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret, about 150 kilometers away. Doctors in Eldoret are trained to recognize Burkitt’s, and the hospital has the machines to do biopsies. But the distance and the expense mean that the time between the first reporting of a case and the start of treatment can drag out dangerously, putting lives in peril. Around Lake Victoria, only two health facilities deal with these cases. Both rely heavily on the Eldoret hospital’s equipment for diagnosis.
At the two lakeside facilities, research sponsored and conducted by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Epidemiology of Burkitt Lymphoma in East-African Children and Minors (EMBLEM) project sponsored by the US National Institutes of Health, and the Ogra Foundation has facilitated diagnosis and treatment. These organizations have assisted many cases throughout Kenya by training health care providers in diagnosis and treatment, providing medication, and paying hospital bills.