New Pediatric Oncology Training Program Bridges the Gap for Kids in Africa

by Erinn Jessop, St. Baldrick's Foundation
August 28, 2018

Dr. Joseph Lubega has big news — he’s bringing specialized pediatric cancer training to his home country of Uganda, thanks to his St. Baldrick’s International Scholar Grant and a partnership between Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. Read on for more about the pioneering program and why it will be a lifesaver for kids with cancer in the region.

EXCITING UPDATE: The first class of the East African Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Fellowship Program has officially graduated from the unique two-year program, which is the first of its kind in the region. “This is the most exciting point in my entire medical career,” said Dr. Joseph Lubega, a St. Baldrick’s International Scholar and leader of the fellowship program. “The realization that we have a critical mass of specialists to take care of children with cancer in this region of the world, and that they will train others going forward to infinitely multiply the specialist workforce — it is truly a momentous day.” The graduates are Drs. Barnabas Atwiine, Fadhil Geriga, Philip Kasirye, and Ruth Namazzi. Congratulations, grads!

Dr. Joseph Lubega speaks at the launch of the Uganda fellowship program

Dr. Lubega speaks at the launch of the fellowship program in Uganda earlier this month.

Lack of diagnosis, poor care, staggering drug costs, a deficit in specialized medical training for doctors — all of these factors make survival rare for a kid with cancer in Africa.

But St. Baldrick’s researcher Dr. Joseph Lubega hopes to change that with a pioneering program that will train a new wave of East African pediatricians in children’s oncology and hematology.

Led by Dr. Lubega, the two-year East African Fellowship Training Program is not only the first pediatric oncology training program in the region — it’s the very first structured medical fellowship program, period.

BLOG: International Scholar Grants Broaden the Borders of Childhood Cancer Research >

Dr. Lubega explained that while most American doctors leave medical school and move straight into a fellowship program, in Uganda it’s different.

There, students will graduate medical school and start practicing right away. For Dr. Lubega to receive specialized training in pediatric oncology, he had to study outside of Africa, eventually beginning his fellowship nine years after leaving medical school.

That is what most doctors will go through to get properly trained, Dr. Lubega said.

The need for this program is massive, not only when it comes to the rare, specialized training —Dr. Lubega has already received applications for next year — but also because about 50 percent of East Africa’s population of 160 million people are kids under the age of 15, Dr. Lubega explained. When these kids get cancer, their options are sparse.

Shakina, one of Dr. Lubega's patients with kidney cancer, smiles for the camera

Shakina, one of Dr. Lubega’s patients, battles kidney cancer with a smile and hope for her future. She wants to be a model some day.

“It’s really a large volume of patients and a need,” he said.

Launched earlier this month, the program already has four fellows, who will train in everything from typical bedside procedures in pediatric cancer to professional communication to research.

At the end of the two years, the fellows will be given an exam, on top of frequent evaluations throughout the program. If they pass, Dr. Lubega said, they’ll be recognized by the Ugandan Medical Council as specialists.

“Within two years we will have a total of four locally-grown specialists,” Dr. Lubega said. “We are trying to create a self-sustaining program.”

With the launch of the East African Fellowship Training Program, Dr. Lubega hopes to not only help kids with cancer in Africa, but to move the field forward in all developing countries.

“Without research, we’ll never do better,” he said. “Without good clinical care, you can do all the research you want and never help the patient. And without education, you’ll never have the people to do the research and do patient care.”

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