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International initiatives to map health and disease in Africa have multiplied in recent years. The epidemiological maps produced through these initiatives are critical to the evidentiary and accountability regimes that dominate contemporary global health. They bring to light previously neglected health issues, advising policymakers, philanthropists and aid agencies where to invest their resources. They also inform those designing global health programmes which interventions work and are worth investing in. And they allow international donors and advocacy groups to monitor how governments and charities fulfil their healthcare duties and hold them to account. Given these critical roles that epidemiological maps play in the administration of health in Africa today, it seems important that we interrogate and begin developing a better understanding of these cartographies of disease: What are their colonial genealogies? What are the scientific and political rationales driving these initiatives? What is the socio-technical infrastructure necessary to the production of these maps? What ideas of disease and Africa do these cartographies help bring into being? And, more provocatively perhaps, can these maps be trusted at all?

Abidjan Cancer Registry

These questions are at the heart of the present research project. Indeed, drawing on insights from science and technology studies and in close partnership with epidemiologists, the aim of this pilot project is to start shedding light on these epidemiological maps that have become so critical but about which we know so little. Specifically, the project seeks to uncover the socio-technical infrastructures and scientifio-political rationales that underpin these maps as well as the understandings of disease and Africa that these maps bring into being. To explore these issues, the project focuses on efforts to map cancer in sub-Saharan Africa over the last 70 years. Specifically, it examines, compares and contrasts two types of cartographic initiatives: (1) the production by British and French doctors in the late colonial and early postcolonial periods of small-scale epidemiological maps to advance understandings of cancer aetiology and improve treatment strategies in the metropole; and (2) the contemporary publication by global surveillance organisations like the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Gates-funded Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation of political altases of the continent with national cancer burdens to rationalise health policy and planning in Africa. The research will involve conducting archival research in France, the UK, the USA and Switzerland as well as conducting thnographic fieldwork in locations like Abidjan, Nairobi, Lyon, Seattle and beyond.

Cancer Registry Office

This project is funded through a British Academy Knowledge Frontiers Award and a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award. The award is held by David Reubi at King’s College London, in conjunction with Max Parkin, Coordinator of AFCRN and a senior researcher at the University of Oxford, Freddie Bray, Head of the Cancer Surveillance Section at IARC, Anne Korir, head of the Nairobi Cancer Registry at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, and Franck Gnahatin, head of the Abidjan Cancer Registry and member of the National Cancer Control Programme at the Ministry of Health and Public Hygiene of the Ivory Coast. We welcome enquiries from colleagues and health activists working in the field of epidemiology and surveillance in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.