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CGI 2010: Cancer -- the Developing World's 'Time Bomb'

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Of all the pressing issues confronting the developing world, cancer gets comparatively short shrift. And yet, a majority of new cancer diagnoses come from developing countries.

The fact that these countries are significantly less capable to care for the afflicted than, say, the United States, where cancer has been a leading health priority for many decades, means that cancer is "a time bomb waiting to explode," says Princess Dina Mired of the King Hussein Cancer Foundation. At last month's Clinton Global Initiative, Mired said that addressing cancer depends on a sophisticated medical infrastructure above and beyond traditional health care. Much of the world is ill-equipped to tackle the disease, and increasing numbers are dying because they can't reach or afford adequate treatment. As such, it's disturbing that cancer is not a part of any global health agenda, Mired asserted.

A special session on the topic at CGI offered a rare spotlight on this global issue, which has striking parallels to HIV/AIDS in the level of ignorance and stigma surrounding it. For example, widespread concern that the disease is contagious leads victims to refrain from publicly disclosing their status. In turn, a lack of visible cancer survivors leads people to think it's always a deadly disease, or less common than it really is. And then there's the omnipresent issue of gender discrimination and the need for funding to specifically advance women and girls, a major theme at CGI this year as it was last. When it comes to cancer, for example, some women in the developing world who get a diagnosis of breast cancer forego a mastectomy for fear of losing their husbands, according to Felicia Knaul of the Harvard Global Equity Initiative.

Paul Farmer of Partners In Health and the Harvard Medical School called for the creation of a Global Fund for Cancer, one focused on all areas of need, from prevention to diagnosis to care. But, a recent study from the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine, as reported by VaccineNewsDaily, found that single disease campaigns in developing countries "interfered significantly with routine health care delivery."

So, while cancer demands greater global attention and care, this work should be approached in such a way as to strengthen the general health infrastructure in developing countries, rather than compete with it for needed funds.