KAMPALA, Uganda – With dancers from every corner of Uganda and speeches by dignitaries including President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the Uganda Cancer Institute, or UCI, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Thursday celebrated the opening of a new, state-of-the-art home for their decade-long alliance.
The UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre for the first time brings all of the alliance’s work under one roof, accommodating 20,000 outpatient visits a year as well as housing laboratories for research and rooms for training and conferences. It is the first comprehensive cancer center jointly built by U.S. and African cancer institutions in sub-Saharan Africa.
“What started as a conversation among a few people has grown into a grand vision,” said UCI Director Dr. Jackson Orem, who is co-director of the UCI-Fred Hutch alliance, along with Dr. Corey Casper, director of Fred Hutch’s Global Oncology Program.
“I am certain that we are doing something extraordinary,” said Casper. “The challenge is great for us, but the opportunities are much greater.”
With a brick exterior that matches the buildings at Fred Hutch’s Seattle headquarters, the three-story, 25,000-square-foot building rises on the edge of the UCI’s Kampala campus, next to a jumble of low-slung, stucco-walled structures that have served as Uganda’s only cancer treatment center since 1967.
Completing the transformation, the Ugandan government recently opened a new in-patient hospital just up the hill. It began moving in pediatric patients two months ago in a phased opening.
People began trickling onto the brick-paved parking lot of the building by 8 a.m. Thursday to go through security set up for the president’s arrival. By 9:30, a crowd of around 300 — nurses in their starched white uniforms, colorful belts and dress caps; physician-researchers; university deans, professors and medical students; hospital administrators, government ministers and members of parliament, reporters and others — gathered under a giant white, open-sided party tent. And the dancing began.
Colorfully costumed dance troupes from around Uganda performed, and their dances were as varied as Uganda’s nine indigenous communities and 56 tribes. In one, a courtship dance, men outdid themselves with kicks and jumps to win the hand of a village woman. In another, spear-carrying dancers in long straw-colored wigs imitated the crested crane, Uganda’s national symbol. In one dance, men carried big drums on their heads; in another, women with rigid torsos and whirling hips balanced pots on their heads, kneeling to add one at a time until the pots were stacked eight-tall.
Musicians accompanied the dancers on long wood-framed horns covered in cow hide, xylophones, stringed harps, gourd shakers and drums of every size and shape. Singers joined in. It was impossible not to smile.
Orem welcomed the crowd, and speaker Kwaku Aning, deputy director general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, drew applause with a call to make cancer care available to all people in all countries. Then the crowd milled, ate light sandwiches and visited friends and colleagues while awaiting the president’s arrival. The mood was festive.
Each guest speaker entered the tent to a burst of drumming and singing. President Museveni and his entourage arrived around 12:30 p.m. and first toured the new building with Orem, Casper and other UCI and Fred Hutch dignitaries, including President and Director Emeritus Dr. Larry Corey. The tour lasted longer than expected as the president quizzed the scientists about cancer.
Since its informal beginnings as a small research project in 2004, the UCI/Hutchinson Center Cancer Alliance — formalized in 2008 — has grown into a holistic cancer program that now includes training, clinical care and community outreach.
Today the partnership is held up by the National Cancer Institute as a model for research, training and patient care in low-income countries. That it has accomplished all of this in the cramped conditions of a now-50-year-old facility speaks volumes about the dedication of the physician-scientists, nurses and staff.
Speaker after speaker saluted this dedication.
Casper singled out the Ugandan researchers and others who have worked with him for a decade, including driver Isma Lubega.
Corey, who helped launch the project 11 years ago, noted that it has exceeded even his optimistic predictions.
“The credit goes to our Ugandan partners who dreamt the ideal that we would not just tackle Kaposi sarcoma and Burkitt Lymphoma, our initial and at first singular focus, but we would start a training program and build a team of people that would tackle the types of cancer that are most common and difficult in Uganda,” he said. “Our dream together is using this partnership and its new facility to enhance the research and clinical programs to dramatically improve the treatment and the prevention of cancer in this city, this country, this region and ultimately around the world.”
Ugandan speakers also thanked the U.S. government, represented at the opening by U.S. ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi, and Fred Hutch for their partnership.
“I thank the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which helped finance this project, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center for its willingness to join hands with us,” said Dr. Charles Olweny, chairman of the UCI board, who kept the UCI going in the tumultuous years under dictator Idi Amin. “No one can do it alone.”
The UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre is funded in part by two grants totaling $1.4 million from the USAID (through the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad program) and an $8.6 million investment from Fred Hutch. The government of Uganda also has supported the building through the donation of land, support for personnel and equipment, and technical support.
"The UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre is a concrete example of Ugandans’ and Americans’ cooperation to improve the health and well-being of Ugandans and other Africans in need,” said Katherine Crawford, the director of USAID's Office of American Schools and Hospitals Abroad, before the ceremony began. “We’re proud to support this partnership and look forward to working collectively to ensure Uganda has a healthy and prosperous future.”
As is the custom, Museveni was the final speaker. He also thanked his U.S. partners in a 30-minute talk that included details about infection-related cancers and the importance of early detection, which he said he’d learned in his tour of the new facility. He praised the new laboratories that will make diagnoses faster and more accurate, and he singled out the training that the alliance has undertaken.
He invited the dozen physicians who have trained in Seattle at Fred Hutch and the University of Washington to stand before the audience.
“Now you can see the capacity they have added,” he said. “And this isn’t all — there are more.”
He added, “Thank Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the U.S. government for all the help they’ve given Uganda.”
Museveni left for his motorcade to drumming and singing around 3:30 p.m. The mood remained buoyant as colleagues embraced each other and servers passed around cake. As the crowd began to dissipate, Dr. Corey Casper’s closing words lingered.
“The world is watching,” he had said. “The world is waiting. Let’s get to work.”
Robert Hood, senior multimedia editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is a longtime photojournalist who grew up in newspapers and most recently worked at NBC News Digital and msnbc.com, directing multimedia operations. Reach him at email@example.com.
Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.