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Patients to get free breast cancer drugs

The first batch of patients in a public hospital to be treated with a breast cancer drug that can cure early stages of the disease will receive their first dose on Thursday.

About 20 patients will get the drug, Herceptin, for free at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). Otherwise, they would have paid Sh250,000 for a dose yet a patient requires at least 18 doses to be treated, a feat that would cost close to Sh4.5 million.

This will be the first time the medicine is accessed and issued in a public facility, as it is available in some private hospitals in the country. The drug, given as an injection, targets a protein that fuels the growth of aggressive breast cancers which do not respond to treatment.

Breast cancer is the second most prevalent type in Kenya. In 2012, approximately 4,500 women had breast cancer, nearly half were below 50 years according to the Kenya Network of Cancer Organisations.

Ms Anne Ng’ang’a from the Ministry of Health, said the Herceptin Access programme is the result of a 2016 partnership between the government and Roche, an international pharmaceutical firm on a “co-funding mechanism”.

STOP GAP MEASURE

“The government foots 50 per cent of the cost and Roche the other half. This is a stop gap measure at the moment. For sustainability we are thinking of roping in the National Hospital Insurance Fund as it supports chemotherapy to ensure more Kenyans get the treatment in the future,” Dr Ng’ang’a said.

The Nation has learnt that the government will get the drug at nearly half its market price and has committed Sh20 million with a similar amount from Roche.
The drugs arrived at KNH on Monday from the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency.

The patients were selected following diagnosis using a machine called the immunohistochemistry analyser which was unveiled at KNH by First Lady Margaret Kenyatta in August, last year.

The diagnosis gives results which can predict how aggressive the cancer is and how it will respond to certain drugs. This informs a tailor-made treatment for each individual woman.

LATE DIAGNOSIS

Mr David Makumi, chairman of the Kenya Network of Cancer Organisations, said late diagnosis of the disease was rife yet breast cancer can be treated if detected early.

“There are various reasons that lead to deaths from the disease including lack of awareness, fewer cancer specialists and lack of access to treatment such as Herceptin due to the high cost,” he said.

Ms Benda Kithaka, chairperson of Women 4 Cancer, said: “It is exciting that I have lived to see the day that breast cancer patients have access to Herceptin. Now we do not have to worry as this will open up the path for similar drug access programmes for other cancers affecting both men and women.”

According to a 2016 study on 257 women at the University of Manchester Herceptin in combination with another called lapatinib (Tykerb) shrinks certain breast cancer tumours also called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) positive in 11 days.

Potentially implying that women who respond to this treatment combination might be able to avoid chemotherapy.

Current therapy for HER2 positive breast cancers is surgery, followed by chemotherapy and Herceptin.

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