The wife of Ondo State Governor, Chief Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, has advised Nigerian medical students to borrow a sheet from their US counterparts by helping to improve health care through volunteering to reduce the prevalence of non- communicable diseases in the country.

The first lady gave the advice at the 8th Regional Convention of the Nigerian Medical Students’ Association (NiMSA), held at Afe Babalola University Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD)

Akeredolu, who spoke as a guest lecturer at the event on “Reviving the role of medical students in breast cancer advocacy,” condemned the high cost of cancer care, claiming that “volunteering in breast cancer advocacy, conducting clinical breast research and the provision of psychosocial support by NiMSA would greatly contribute to early detection and thus reduce the cancer burden.”

According to her, “Students in the medical field have been shown to play an important role in a number of public health victories. A study (Shibu, 2021) noted how medical students in the United States of America volunteered as frontline workers when the school was closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is interesting to note that even as school resumed, quite a few continued to volunteer in their primary care positions due to their “internal motivation and external pressures from a tense care environment”.

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Ms Akeredolu, who founded the Breast Cancer Association of Nigeria (BRECAN) twenty-five years ago, further encouraged students to become volunteers from a number of advocacy groups such as BRECAN, adding: “You can also volunteer in primary health care centers where medical doctors are missing.”

She further encouraged the establishment of a student-run medical clinic to care for disadvantaged populations and the homeless, as evidenced by the US.

The founder of BRECAN, who revealed the WHO 2020 statistics of 26,000 new breast cancer cases in Nigeria with about 11,500 deaths per year, identified late detection, presentation and poor health care as the main drivers of the increasing burden of disease in Nigeria.

She also identified little political will for cancer care and inadequate radiotherapy centers as other contributing factors to prevalence and morbidity in Nigeria, compared to countries like Morocco and India, both of which have been termed low-middle-income countries, such as Nigeria.

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She said: “Although Nigeria has a national cancer plan, it has yet to be implemented and domesticated at the state and local government levels. Radiation therapy is an important treatment option for cancer patients, but it is not widely available in Nigeria; whereas Morocco has 17 functional radiotherapy centers as of 2014 with a population of approximately 32 million people.

“The federal government has yet to begin a routine campaign to raise awareness about any cancer. The majority of cancer awareness campaigns are organized by cancer non-governmental organizations.”

The guest lecturer called for a holistic approach to breast cancer programming, noting that creating awareness without addressing the issue of patient navigation and quality cancer care services would render awareness nearly useless.

“Clearly, reducing the cancer burden requires the effort of sufficient human resources, yet few staff and organizations work in the Nigerian cancer space.

“The task of awareness and patient navigation is virtually abandoned for NGOs that have little or no money to fulfill their mission; while diagnosis and treatment are left to the few oncologists who are left in the country and barely have the resources to work with,” she said.

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She complained about insufficient cancer registrations in Nigeria, which she said made it impossible to understand the cancer needs in the country.

The governor’s wife expressed concern about the massive brain drain in the high-level medical field and therefore stressed the need to use the abundance of medical students to save the country’s health system.

She urged the students to develop an interest in the specialty of oncology, stating that it would be difficult to achieve much in the field of cancer if the young caregivers were not interested in cancer care.

“Governments need to create appeal for the specialty of oncology by investing more in cancer care infrastructure and boosting the specialty,” added Ms Akeredolu.

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Contribute to healthcare through volunteering, Akeredolu’s wife tells medical students

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