Medical Mission : Volunteer Doctors Will Go to Africa to Help Cervical Cancer Patients

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For Dr. Robert S. Greenburg, an obstetrician and gynecologist, Africa started off as just a vacation--an exotic locale for his amateur photography.

"I was in the Air Force, stationed in Germany, and I took a trip to Africa to make photos," he said. The continent's birds and animals proved to be wonderfully photogenic, he said. But Greenburg said he also became concerned about the people.

"Women in Africa are dying needlessly of cancer of the cervix," he said. "We [in the United States] can do something about that."

On Thursday, he and other physicians are launching a Southern California-based organization called Medicine for Humanity. The nonprofit group will recruit doctors to go to Africa as short-term volunteers, specifically working to reduce cervical cancer.

Three African countries are initially targeted--Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi. Greenburg's seven visits to Africa have included Kenya and Tanzania, and there he has seen firsthand the plight of women who suffer cervical cancer. Pap smears, which can detect cervical cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages, are rarely performed there.

"There are no specialists there who can care for women with this type of cancer," he said. "There are mission hospitals and government hospitals, but the care is very limited. The rich in these countries can go to Europe for treatment, but for the native women in the villages, and even in the cities, they are simply on their own with this disease. The result is that the disease progresses to a very horrible, tragic death."

Greenburg said the African women typically are 25 to 40 years old when they become ill with cancer of the cervix.

Medicine for Humanity is starting with only a small core of physicians, said a co-founder, Dr. Leo Lagasse, a gynecologist at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a professor at UCLA.

"We're just a little group of about eight other doctors," Lagasse said. But he added that interest is already growing. "I think we could already get two dozen volunteers who would go to Africa on vacation time to volunteer their services," Lagasse said.

"We started because we have a love for Africa. The stories there would break your heart. There is so much cervix cancer, and a lot of it can be prevented. A lot can be cured."

Medicine for Humanity envisions having U.S. doctors use some or all of their vacation time to work in Africa. Much of the work will be administering Pap smears to women. The test can detect possible cancerous conditions in time to prevent onset of the disease.

"We'll work with the women ourselves, and we'll also train the local people there to do this type of health care," Greenburg said. He said a typical volunteer will spend two or three weeks in an African country. Medicine for Humanity hopes to raise money, or receive donated flight time, to transport the doctors to Africa. The host countries will provide room and board for the visiting physicians.

"We also would like to establish post-residency fellowships for doctors from UCLA or Cedars-Sinai to go to these Third World countries as part of their training," Greenburg said.

Cancer of the cervix is a major killer of women in less developed countries of the world, according to the American Cancer Society. The society's chief medical officer, Dr. Harmon J. Eyre, said he salutes the founding of Medicine for Humanity.

"Humanitarian aid of this nature is to be praised and represents a really valuable service," Eyre said in a telephone interview from the society's national offices in Atlanta.

Eyre said cervical cancer is as prevalent today in less developed countries as it was in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. "Those countries are 40 to 50 years behind us," he said. "They don't have the organizations or programs in place to handle this rising problem. Individual groups, such as Dr. Lagasse's, can perform a very useful service in these countries by raising awareness and focusing attention on the problem."

Greenburg said annual Pap smears have greatly reduced cervical cancer fatalities in the United States. "Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the world, but not in the United States, where it is No. 7 among women's cancer," Greenburg said. "In the United States, the Pap smears--the screening tests--have made this a preventable disease."

There are still areas of the United States where women need better preventive care for cervical cancer, Greenburg said. "These are the rural areas and the inner-city areas," he said. Some doctors volunteering for Medicine for Humanity will go into these understaffed U.S. regions, Greenburg added.

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