According to a research by the University of Zimbabwe (UZ)’s department of biological sciences in Harare last year, one in every 1 000 people in the capital is at risk of developing colon or liver cancer.
Fish and water in Lake Chivero, Manyame River and other water sources around Harare were heavily contaminated with industrial pollutants, which included chemicals, heavy metals and raw sewage – all of which scientific research has shown cause cancer, the research says.
It also revealed water from these sources is not safe to drink. This, it said, was worsened by continued disposal of raw sewage by local authorities into city’s rivers.
Cancer cases are rising at an alarming rate with statistics showing that the number of infections recorded between 2007 and 2011 had doubled.
According to the Cancer Association of Zimbabwe (CAZ), the country is currently recording an average 7 000 new cancer cases annually compared to 3 349 registered in 2007.
Of note, it said, was the increase in digestive system cancer infections, which scientific research has shown are due to continued consumption of contaminated food and water.
CAZ knowledge manager Tafadzwa Chigaro said: “It is worrying that there is a lot of effluence flowing into our river sources and these could be carcinogens (substances and exposures that can lead to cancer).”
But an independent survey carried out a year before the research in 2010 revealed that Harare’s tap water was safe for drinking. The survey, based on tests conducted by experts from the UZ, says the qualify of Harare’s drinking water met World Health Organisation (WHO) standards and, as such, does not pose any health risks.
Yet findings by other experts a year later condemned Harare tap water as unsafe for consumption. UZ researcher Professor Chris Magadza revealed in March last year Harare’s “treated” water did not meet minimum WHO standards.
Magadza told the EcoSchools World Water Day commemorations last year that “clinical studies carried out on Harare’s water supplies and results obtained revealed that the city’s water bodies carry a significant amount of pollutants which pose a potential health risk”.
“The catchment water supply for Chivero is swiftly decreasing, making Harare increasingly reliant on recycled sewage. The water table for Harare has sunk from 15 to 30 metres within the last decade,” said Magadza.
Water shortages have worsened the situation, forcing people to resort to contaminated wells.
Meanwhile, the 2011 African Journal of Aquatic Science indicates that levels of metal contamination in these water bodies was too high and fish from Manyame, Mukuvisi and Gwebi rivers have an unusual concentration of zinc and iron.
This, the journal says, affected aquatic life and human health as evidenced by an upsurge in cancer cases in the country.
The Harare, Chitungwiza and Norton town councils were last year fined US$15 000 by the Environmental Management Agency for disposing raw sewage into water bodies and for poor management of waste.
Scientific research has shown that drinking five glasses of water daily decreases the risk of colon cancer by 45%, breast cancer by 79%, and bladder cancer by 50%. However, most Zimbabweans continue to drink contaminated water, which, in some cases, contains rust.
According to CAZ, cancer is now killing more people than HIV and Aids, tuberculosis and malaria combined with recorded cases reaching 7, 6 million annually worldwide. Over 12,7 million people in the world are reported to have cancer.
Ominously, cancer cases in children in Zimbabwe are also growing. The Zimbabwe Children’s Cancer Relief — a Non-Governmental Organisation dealing with children with cancer — says in the first six months of 2011, it dealt with 254 cases of children with cancer and the number continues to rise.
In its 2007 report, the cancer association indicated that of the 3 349 new cases recorded, 57,3% were women while men constituted 43,7 %. Cervical cancer affected 33% of women, breast cancer 9,9%, while Kaposi sarcoma accounted for 9,3%.
Kaposi sarcoma remains the leading cancer in men in Zimbabwe accounting for 19,2% of all cancer cases. It causes patches of abnormal tissue to grow under the skin, in the lining of the mouth, nose, and throat or in other organs. The patches are usually red or purple and are made of cancer cells and blood cells.
Prostate cancer cases account for 12,7%. Lately, breast cancer has also been detected in men.
Chigaro said: “We don’t have solid statistics on breast cancer in men in Zimbabwe but from our observation, there is an increase in the number of men with breast cancer. But from a global perspective, 1% of the male population has breast cancer.”
Smoking causes between 80-90% of lung cancer deaths in Zimbabwe and about 30% of cancer deaths in developing countries. It also causes kidney, pancreatic, cervical, bladder and stomach cancers.
Close to 60% of cancer cases recorded in Zimbabwe, according to the National Cancer Registry, are HIV-related. People with HIV and Aids are at high risk of developing cancers like Kaposi sarcoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and cervical cancer.
“Most cancer cases in Zimbabwe are HIV-related. The other causes are change in lifestyles — we are now adopting a Western kind of lifestyle,” said Chigaro.
WHO and the United States-based National Cancer Institute (NCI) says an estimated 60-80% of all cancer cases in children are caused by contaminated air, food and water. The NCI points out that an increase in carcinogens in water and local authorities’ inability to remove them at the treatment plants would result in a situation where one in every four people globally would be affected by cancer.
Other causes of cancer, besides contaminated water and food, include tobacco smoking and chewing, lack of exercise and genetics, family history of cancer, excessive drinking of alcohol, being overweight, chronic stress and unsafe sex.
Cancer has proved to be one of the most expensive diseases to treat. The cost of treatment in Zimbabwe is prohibitive, with public hospital charging at least US$600 a session of chemotherapy, while a cancer patient requires at least six sessions of treatment.
The cost of treatment for advanced cancer, including doctors’ fees, surgery and chemotherapy is estimated at between US$4 000 and US$5 000 in private hospitals.
Cancer treatment in Zimbabwe is confined to two public health centres — the Radiotherapy Centre at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare and at Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo.