Cancer is the leading non-communicable disease in Tanzania. With more than 40,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed each year and a high mortality rate of nearly 29,000, the country is experiencing a consistent and a significant rise in the disease. A fragmented healthcare system and limited cancer awareness often leads to late-stage diagnosis, after which patients struggle to access treatment and care – particularly in remote areas.
Working collaboratively with the Government of Tanzania and Aga Khan Health Services, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) is boosting the quality, access, and capacity of cancer care services in Dar es Salaam and Mwanza regions. The Tanzania Comprehensive Cancer Project (TCCP), funded by Agence Française de Developpement, aims to reach more than 1.7 million people through community awareness, staff training, infrastructure development, and research.
Through TCCP, community health workers are spearheading the campaign to raise awareness of cancer. Through its close community ties, AKF is providing training on primary cancer prevention, early detection, and frequent cancer screening to community health workers and members of the wider community.
In Magu District, part of the Mwanza region of northern Tanzania, local hospital staff have seen a rise in cervical, breast, and prostate cancers. Through TCCP, Sinza and Boniface – two community health workers from Magu – are hosting community meetings, open forums, and household visits to build awareness of cancer signs and symptoms, and solidify referral and diagnosis pathways within their communities.
Since taking part in the training, Sinza and Boniface have built the trust of their community, which in turn helps them to address other health-related concerns. Sinza told us that she “feel[s] a sense of pride because I am trusted to be a messenger for my community. Now we have the tools, we will continue our [cancer awareness] work”. Through TCCP, she has the tools and the knowledge to help manage cancer in her community, building the foundations for a healthier tomorrow in Magu.
“I feel a sense of pride because I am trusted to be a messenger for my community. Now we have the tools, we will continue our [cancer awareness] work”
Sinza – community health worker, Magu district
Justin is a community health worker working near the Kitongo health clinic, an hour drive from Mwanza’s city centre. Here, he’s been providing essential medical outreach and support for over 20 years. Justin works with more than one thousand households across two villages and has recently received the same training as Sinza and Boniface.
Justin says that “the community is very willing to learn, and they ask about issues of cancer more than before”. If someone comes to him with a concern about cancer symptoms, he accompanies them to a local health facility for assessment and supports them through their screening, diagnosis, and treatment journey. So far, he has referred over 70 people for screening and helped to identify three positive diagnoses. Justin is proud that the community has placed their trust in him; he is a critical support for his community and has been recognised by his local government for his healthcare work.
“The community is very willing to learn, and they ask about issues of cancer more than before”
Justin – community health worker, Mwanza
Since 2020, AKF has trained more than 400 community health workers to provide cancer education at the community level. These activities, led by AKF staff in cooperation with district and regional government and hospital staff, have transformed the ability of communities to identify common cancers, and strengthened the referral pathway for diagnosis and treatment.
Using social media and collaborating with local and national news outlets, AKF has also led a media campaign to expand awareness of cancer screening and prevention. These short videos, shared throughout social networks and promoted in mass media, provide an important outreach opportunity and are helping to promote cancer awareness across Tanzania.
While TCCP is set to end in 2023, the lasting impact will be felt for years to come. With greater knowledge of cancer signs and symptoms, Tanzanians will be better prepared to access and receive lifesaving diagnosis and care.
Written by Gertrude Omoro and Peter Steele (Partnerships Fellows, AKF Tanzania)