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World Cancer Day: Treatment Should Not Be a Luxury

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co-authored by Cary Adams.

All of us have been touched by cancer, whether personally or through the experience of our families and friends. For those of us living in the developed world, many types of cancer have ceased to be the "dread disease" they once were: Given the remarkable advances in basic science and oncology, it's more a question of what the best course of treatment is, rather than one of availability or affordability. But for most of the world, access to cancer screening, detection, diagnosis and oncology care is still an unattainable luxury. Considering that nearly half of cancer cases -- and 55 percent of the deaths -- occur in less developed countries, we need to make progress now.

If left unchecked, the annual economic burden of cancer will be an estimated $458 billion by 2030, according to a study by the World Economic Forum and Harvard School of Public Health. But the human cost of 21.4 million new cases per year by 2030 is, quite simply, unacceptable. In commemoration of World Cancer Day (Today, February 4), we call for the global community to step-up its efforts to address cancer and other NCDs.

Cancers, along with other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, upper respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease, are the leading causes of mortality around the world. Indeed, the number of cancer deaths alone surpasses those attributed to AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Once considered illnesses of the wealthy, 80 percent of the estimated 36 million NCD-related deaths actually occur in low- to middle- income countries, according to the World Health Organization. And while a global movement for action on NCDs has been gathering momentum in recent years, much remains to be done.

The Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health and the Study of Business Enterprise at Johns Hopkins University recently released a set of policy briefs that present recommendations for Addressing the Gaps in Global Policy and Research for Non-Communicable Disease. The publication compiles the findings of a Working Group of leading experts in the field and offers a road map of actionable recommendations for reducing the global burden of these diseases.

The report echoes many of the themes put forth by the global cancer community for achieving the goals articulated in the World Cancer Declaration. For starters, there needs to be a multi-sectoral approach to cancer. Governments, civil society, academe and the private sector must work together to leverage strengths and efficiencies to advance efforts to reduce the burden of cancer.

Greater participation by the private sector in a transparent and open way will improve efforts against the disease in coming years. Certainly, private-public partnerships to tackle cancer exist, but greater collaboration among stakeholders is needed. One suggestion may be to develop a knowledge exchange network for oncology researchers in industry and academe to accelerate the rate of progress in discovering and developing new vaccines, personalized medicines, pharmaceuticals and other essential medical technologies. While their most significant role is -- and will continue to be -- in R&D, the private sector can also lend considerable expertise in systems efficiencies, human resource development and supply chain management, to name just a few areas in which their capabilities can improve the global response to cancer.

Governments need to play a more active role in actively reducing and raising awareness about risk factors for cancer and other NCDs. They need to work with civil society and industry to reduce tobacco and excessive alcohol use, while promoting healthier diets and physical activity at the national and community levels. Again the private sector can play a lead role in improving the health impacts of their products to reduce the global growth in NCDs.

Countries need to make greater investments in building the capacity of local health workers so they are more capable of educating patients about reducing their cancer risk through behavior modification as well as immunization against human papilloma virus (HPV) and hepatitis B (HBV) infections (which can lead to cervical cancer and primary liver cancer, respectively). Health workers are the first line of defense, detecting hallmarks of disease and providing cancer screening, treatment and, when necessary, long-term care. Moreover, countries need to re-evaluate how they can retain health workers who are trained in cancer care. Without them, all interventions become impossible.

Finally, there needs to be greater focus on providing equitable access to screening, early diagnosis and treatment. Self-exams and visual inspection with acetic acid for breast cancer and cervical cancer screening respectively, are two excellent examples of effective, inexpensive, life-saving innovations that can be implemented even in low-resource settings. Integrating these methods into existing primary, reproductive and maternal health service models would help reduce the 750,000 deaths from cervical and breast cancer each year.

It's a lot of work, but for many of us, cancer hits very close to home. By working together to combat cancer, each doing our part, we can begin to make a difference in the lives of millions -- making cancer care and treatment not a luxury, but a reality.

Cary Adams is CEO of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), which helps the global health community accelerate the fight against cancer. Its growing membership of over 700 organisations in 155 countries features the world's major cancer societies, ministries of health and patient groups and includes influential policy makers, researchers and experts in cancer prevention and control. Adams and his team focus on global advocacy to deliver the World Cancer Declaration targets by 2020, running global programs that address key cancer issues and use their membership reach to bring about the exchange of best practice globally. He recently became Chair of the NCD Alliance, a coalition of around 2,000 NGOs working on non-communicable diseases.