Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG - In March statistician-general Risenga Maluleke released a 2016 account on causes of death in South Africa. 

Maluleke observed in his report that the three leading causes of death among males consisted of communicable and non-communicable diseases, while the pattern among females is that all three leading causes of death are non-communicable.

He concluded that overall the results showed a considerable burden of disease arising from non-communicable diseases, especially from lifestyle diseases such as diabetes. Cancer is also increasing in pace and impacting the economy.

This pattern of non-communicable diseases increasing as a cause of death in society is raised by the World Health Organisation as well.

In their 2018 report released in February, they argued that globally cancer was the second leading cause of death in the world.

It terminates 8.8 million lives a year globally.

I know first-hand how aggressive cancer can be.

Coming to Johannesburg from the mountain kingdom of Lesotho in 1964 for the first time, I saw my mother lying in a ward of cancer patients at the

Baragwanath Hospital, her face deformed with one side swollen and severely darkened.

It was the last time I saw her alive and six month later she had passed on. On another bed was a person with a face just as darkened.

While the life scenes were scary, there was still a lot to impress a village boy who hardly used any soap for washing - only blue soap was available or soda soap made from pork fat. The grounds of this ward were littered with remnants of lifebuoy soap, which I eagerly collected for use for when I got back to the mountain kingdom.

The sadness still remains.

Fifty four years later, on August 1 at the Steve Biko Hospital, hope had risen that cancer can be beaten.

Under the motto, “see it, treat it”, Professor Mike Machaba Sathekge presented an advance in medical science in the treatment of cancer, under the auspices of the University of Pretoria Expert Lecture Series.

Sathekge is the head of Nuclear Medicine at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Pretoria. He is an outstanding scientist, award-winning intellectual and humanitarian of note.

Sathekge stated that the escalating burden arising from medical conditions and its implications on the economy arise in a large part because of the gap between diagnostics and therapy.

He argued that nuclear medicine is rapidly facilitating the shift from medication by trial and error to personalised precision medicine.

Acknowledging scientists before him who dreamt this notion centuries ago, he noted that advances in theranostics, which encapsulates the integration of diagnostics and therapeutics, was now possible, because of nuclear medicine. By “seeing it you can treat it.”

Not only does nuclear medicine address the malaise of cancer, it opens doors for treating both communicable and non-communicable diseases. TB, HIV and Aids, including injury related disorders, are now within reach of observation, diagnostics and therapy. There is greater scope to treat mental health, including Alzheimer’s.

How did I come to know about Dr Sathekge, Steve Biko Nuclear Medicine Department and cancer?

As a pensioner so many ask me what it is like to be one.

Am I likely to have cancer? No, I have as yet not tested, but certainly after the lecture I will, even though I was recently granted a clean bill of health.

As a statistician, I have the foresight to know that the chance exists.

So I was at the municipality, doing the things ordinary citizens do, which is queueing for payment of bills. I was accosted by a total stranger, Sello Motshega of Soshanguve, who then shared with me how he survived cancer under the knowing hand of Professor Sathekge and his team of experts.

Seeing doubt in my eyes he arranged a trip to Steve Biko in the next three days. And my jaw just dropped as he walked the corridors of Steve Biko greeting and appreciating the work the medical team undertook to raise him from sure death.

He is living proof that cancer can be defeated.

The question he asked was what role he, as a survivor and performing arts expert, and myself as a former statistician-general, and others could do in support of the work of Dr Sathekge and his colleagues at Steve Biko to defeat cancer and remove the heavy burden of medical costs.

On the southern tip of Africa, despite everything else, which includes 300 years of colonial encroachment and disruption, 50 years of apartheid and a few more years of rather unexpected but real post-apartheid misrule, the paragon of black excellence has germinated and in its call, South Africans of all races and creeds have come together to show the world possibilities hitherto unexplored.

This is the hope the unique nuclear medicine in South Africa brings to the world. Less is known about it, but it is worth noting that every 3 seconds South Africa saves a life through nuclear medicine collaboration between Nuclear Energy Corporation South Africa and Steve Biko Hospital. When we as society do the right things, there should be hope.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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