Tanzania and Kenya: environmental links to oesophageal cancer

Understanding why oesophageal cancer is localised within specific areas of the African Rift Valley

Localised regions within Tanzania and Kenya have high incidences of oesophageal cancer. Dr Valerie McCormack from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), has identified a particularly localised incidence of cases near Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania). Dr McCormack and Dr Diana Menya (Moi University, Kenya) are also examining incidences in Kenya's Rift Valley, in the vicinity of Eldoret.

Many possible causal factors have been proposed, with one possibility being an environmental trigger. Examples include exposure to potentially harmful elements or organic compounds, or a micronutrient deficiency (e.g., zinc, selenium) diminishing the body's ability to recover from or buffer an event that may cause cell damage.

Royal Society and Department for International Development networking and training event in Harare, Zimbabwe.

To understand the relationship between environment and oesophageal cancer, the BGS's inorganic geochemistry team, supported by the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry and the BGS, have partnered with the IARC-WHO and national partners in Tanzania (Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre) and Kenya (Moi University, University of Eldoret). Together they have designed and undertaken a detailed survey of soil, water and crop samples in the Kilimanjaro district and the vicinity of Eldoret.

These surveys aim to link geochemistry and crop data with areas in which oesophageal cancer is prevalent. These data will also enable a spatial understanding of the geochemistry (e.g. micronutrient composition and the presence of potentially harmful elements) of differing climatic zones and food-production areas in both regions. This research can inform future experimentation of agricultural methods to improve soil–crop transfer of micronutrients for future health benefits.

Through this partnership, strong working relationships have been forged with clear opportunities for future collaboration. Capacity building was an important part of this programme, with training given to local university counterparts and public-health workers from district offices. The partnerships demonstrate the value of cross-disciplinary collaboration between epidemiologists, health practitioners, biostatisticians, geochemists, farmers and local agricultural extension workers. Communities welcomed the research, and were also important partners, providing useful local knowledge with respect to farming and health issues.

Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs)

This project helps to directly address SDG-3 (good health and wellbeing). Through the wider development impact, it will also help to address:

  • SDG-1 (no poverty)
  • SDG-4 (quality education)
  • SDG-5 (gender equality)
  • SDG-10 (reduced inequalities)

The approach used is coherent with the aims of SDG-17 to enhance north–south, south–south and triangular regional and international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation (target 17.6).


Contact bgsoda@bgs.ac.uk for more information or to get involved.