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Mesothelioma - South Africa

Mesothelioma is a rare incurable cancerous disease usually caused by exposure to asbestos, in which malignant cells form a tumour in the mesothelium (the outer lining that protects the body’s major organs such as the stomach, heart, and lungs) - the most common site is the pleura (the outer lining of the lungs and chest cavity).

How does one get mesothelioma?

This form of cancer is almost always a direct result of unprotected exposure to asbestos. Most people who develop mesothelioma have worked in areas where they inhaled asbestos particles, or have been exposed to asbestos dust and fibre in other ways - for example, by washing the clothes of a family member who worked with asbestos, or by home renovation using asbestos cement products. There is no association between smoking and mesothelioma.

Symptoms of mesothelioma

Symptoms include chest or abdomen pain, persistent coughing or coughing of blood, fatigue, and weight loss.

Asbestos mining in South Africa

Blue asbestos (crocidolite) was discovered in South Africa in 1805 (originally called woolstone) and within a couple of years was being mined. In 1907 amosite (brown asbestos) discovered in (what was then known as) the Transvaal province of South Africa.  The word amosite derived from an acronym of  "Asbestos Mines of South Africa" from the Amosa mine [one formula given for Amosite is Fe7Si8O22(OH)2], and is a trade name for the amphibole (Amphiboles are minerals of either igneous or metamorphic origins) known as Grunerite.

Asbestos mining peaked in 1977 with 20,000 miners employed. There are also large deposits of white asbestos (chrysotile) and brown asbestos (amosite) in South Africa (which have been mined extensively). Most of the Asbestos mining was done in the Northern Cape.

The problem with asbestos arises when the fibers become airborne and are inhaled. Because of the size of the fibers, the lungs cannot expel them.

Mesothelioma in South Africa

With the highest rate of mesothelioma diagnosis on earth, South Africa has been called the "Mesothelioma Capital of the World".

In 1960, the link between mesothelioma and asbestosis was established in the Kimberley area of South Africa. The majority of reported mesothelioma cases resulted from exposure to asbestos in secondary industry (incidence of the condition among miners was also significant).

Latency period

The latency period is the period from when an individual is exposed to asbestos to when the disease manifests itself.


Asbestos is a carcinogenic, fibrous mineral, which was once widely used in construction, usually for insulating purposes. Asbestos fiber has been used in everything from building materials, car parts, roads, and school playgrounds to clothing, bedding, and even tampons.

Mesothelioma-related claims in South Africa

Feb 2004

A settlement of R460 million was reached between Gencor and South African asbestos victims.

Dec 2001

7,500 claimants received a settlement of £21 million from Cape plc, the largest British-owned asbestos mining company in South Africa. However, the company was soon facing serious financial problems and reneged on the settlement.

Mesothelioma Timeline


Wagner published his article on mesothelioma in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine.


Chris Wagner, a pathologist studying asbestos, was unable to find a publisher in South Africa. Wagner documented thirty cases of mesothelioma in the Northern Cape of South Africa. His research identified tumors in miners, road workers and water well drillers from the region.


Blue asbestos (crocidolite) was discovered in South Africa.

Breaking the news

When breaking the news to a friend of the patient, do not panic if they start crying - the crying is a good thing, as it indicates that they have absorbed the news. If they are wide-eyed and dry-eyed, this may mean that they have refused to accept the news.

Mesothelioma recovery factor

The mesothelioma recovery factor (or prognosis) depends on:

Size of the mesothelioma

Whether or not the cancer is spreading

Where the mesothelioma is located

The patient's age & physical health

How the cells are portrayed under a microscope

There are 3 different types of mesothelioma cells:

1. Mixed Cell Type - This cell type is a mixture of the cancer cells and is normally labeled as an intermediate form of the cancer.

2. Epithelial Cell Type - These cells are the most treatable, and have the best prognosis.

3. Fibrosarcomatous Cell Type - This cell type is the worst type of mesothelioma, and has a negative prognosis.

Treatment of Mesothelioma cancer

There are generally 3 types of treatment:

1. Surgery in which case the cancerous portion is removed from the body.

2. Radiation therapy (using x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells).

3. Chemotherapy


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