US Congressman brings fight against childhood cancer to Africa

US Congressman brings fight against childhood cancer to Africa
Photo: Congressman Mike McCaul and American cancer survivor Sadie Keller meet Godiraone John, a Batswana girl recovering from cancer in the Baylor-Botswana Centre of Excellence, a paediatric haematology/oncology centre in Gaborone that was developed through the Global Hope Initiative, which McCaul is supporting. Photo: Representative McCaul staff.

Mike McCaul wants to flip the current death rate of 80% to 90% among African children to a survival rate of 80%, as it is in America.

The US has launched a major campaign to build on its successful Pepfar HIV/AIDS programme and save hundreds of thousands of children in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world from dying of curable cancer.

Four fifths of American children diagnosed with cancer survive. In the developing world four-fifths die. And in Africa that’s more like nine out of 10. 

The Global Hope Initiative, begun by Texas Children’s Hospital and now fully backed by the US Congress, is targeting childhood cancer in sub-Saharan Africa. It will piggyback on the huge infrastructure which the US has already established for its Pepfar programme, which has saved an estimated 17 million people worldwide from HIV/AIDs since 2003, mostly in Africa and especially South Africa — which became the epicenter of that pandemic.

Texas Congressman Mike McCaul, the senior Republican on the House of Representatives foreign relations committee and a long-time champion of children’s cancer treatment in the US, and Congressman Eliot Engel, the Democrat who chairs the committee, last December introduced the Global Hope Act, which passed the House and is expected to pass the Senate.

This Act authorises the Secretary of State “to pursue public-private partnerships, innovative financing mechanisms, research partnerships, and co-ordination with international and multilateral organisations to address childhood cancer globally…”.

In February McCaul was in Botswana to launch a pilot project of the anti-cancer initiative at the Baylor-Botswana Centre of Excellence, a paediatric haematology/oncology centre developed through the Global Hope initiative. He was accompanied by Sadie Keller, an American girl who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age seven in 2015 and cured. She created the Sadie Keller Foundation to help other children and families to fight cancer. She and McCaul met several Botswana children being treated for cancer, including Godiraone John who is recovering at the centre.

McCaul and Keller also met President Mokgweetsi Masisi and First Lady Neo Masisi, who is championing the initiative. 

McCaul told journalists in a phone press conference that, in the US, 80% of children diagnosed with cancer survive because of good treatment and effective drugs.

“Whereas in developing nations it’s the inverse of that; about 80% of those diagnosed don’t make it. In Africa it’s even higher; around 90% mortality rate. And so the Global Hope Initiative is to use the backbone of Pepfar infrastructure; that’s the HIV programme which has saved about 17 million lives. In President Masisi’s words, it saved a generation.”

The US would build on Pepfar to train its doctors and nurses on added cancer treatment “to get those numbers to a better place”.

McCaul said he and his team had met the First Lady and the local Global Hope team to talk about the way ahead and about the US federal legislation to back the initiative and problems in funding it.

After that they toured the oncology centre where he and Keller — “an ambassador representing childhood cancer survivors in the United States” — met many African children going through the same experience she did.

“Which was kind of interesting because what we found is that, whether you live in Botswana or Texas or wherever, these experiences had a very common theme to them,” McCaul said.

Keller said: “I’ve seen all the kids today and what they’ve gone through is what I’ve gone through and so I was, like, really crazy to see other kids in Africa going through the same thing I did. But it was so different. The hospital was so different than mine was in America. And I know Texas Children’s is here and they’re here to get more treatment for the kids.

“And that really makes me feel really good because soon enough they’ll get the treatment which I did and those were the ones which saved my life. So that makes me really happy, but sad too because no kid should have to go through this. But I know they’re really trying to do as much as they can in America and also here as well.”

“Botswana is very profound in that respect,” McCaul added. “Texas Children’s has done a phenomenal job. So we can get the buy-in from the host nation, a nation which is very important. The First Lady has made this her signature issue and has really become a leader on the continent of Africa in trying to get other countries in Africa and the developing world involved.”

McCaul revealed that there is also a Global Hope Initiative pilot project in Uganda. 

“So we think it’s got the potential to save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children. We often say it shouldn’t matter where you’re born as to whether or not you’re going to survive or not from cancer. It’s been a bit of a global mission for me and Sadie. We’re just taking it to another level.”

Asked if South Africa was showing an interest in participating, McCaul replied; “Well it’s more developing nations and I guess the question is whether South Africa is a developing nation.”

But McCaul did suggest the Global Health Initiative would go wherever Pepfar is and one of Pepfar’s biggest programmes is in South Africa.

He said Neo Masisi was planning to convene a meeting of all of Africa’s First Ladies to expand the initiative across the continent, indicating South Africa would be invited to that meeting. 

“The interesting thing is that a lot of these cancers — we’ve been talking to the doctors here — are very treatable. They’re leukemias, they’re treatable. Sadie had acute leukemia.

“Back in my day, my best friend died from leukemia; it was very much a death sentence back then. But today a lot of these are treatable. Bristol-Myers Squibb has really done a great job donating to medical facilities; donating medicines. An Israeli company has decided to donate two years supply of medicines to the Global Health Initiative.”

Over a decade ago, McCaul founded the Childhood Cancer Caucus in Congress to serve as a voice for childhood cancer advocates who did not have lobbyists working the halls of Congress on their behalf. The caucus is considered to have been highly successful: passing the Creating Hope Act, the RACE for Children Act and the Childhood Cancer STAR Act.  And though the Global Hope Act is not yet through the Senate, McCaul foresaw no problems in getting it passed and enacted.

Daily Maverick asked McCaul if he did not foresee funding problems for the initiative, though, as the Global Hope Act includes no provision for government funding, seemingly relying heavily on private charity – compared to Pepfar which has received hundreds of millions of state dollars and continues to do so.

He replied that the lack of initial federal budget funding was in part because the Global Hope Initiative would build on existing Pepfar infrastructure. It would also try to tap the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria — to which the US had contributed a considerable amount.

McCaul himself and his counterpart Engel introduced legislation last June to maintain the US contribution to the Global Fund at 33%, defying President Donald Trump’s efforts to slash this funding. McCaul said he would also seek US budget appropriations for the cancer initiative once the legislation had been adopted.

The Botswana government experienced problems accessing the Global Fund — and when it did manage to get money it was forced to return $7 million. McCaul is investigating why this happened.

McCaul credited David Poplack, director of Global HOPE (Hematology Oncology Pediatric Excellence) and Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Centers for launching the fight against childrens’ cancer which he had taken up. DM


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