How the IAEA Fights the Cancer Epidemic

Cancer Epidemic in Developing Countries

Paediatric Ward at the Ocean Road Cancer Institute, Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania. (Photo: A. Leuker/IAEA)

In developing countries, 655 people die from cancer every hour. Their populations are burgeoning and so is the number of new cancer cases. It´s a potentially deadly disease caused when the body´s cells grow and divide uncontrollably, creating new abnormal tissue. If left untreated, the new tissue can spread throughout the body resulting in death. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that cancer has reached epidemic proportions, and people in developing countries bear the brunt of the disease due to a regrettable lack of capacity for screening, early detection, diagnosis, treatment.

The WHO estimates that more than half of the 10 million people diagnosed with cancer worldwide each year live in the developing countries. Radiotherapy, a mainstay treatment for over 50% of the cancer patients in high income countries, is not readily available in the developing countries.

"Fewer than 25% of the cancer patients in low- and middle income countries have access to radiotherapy treatment. In many developing nations, for example, there is just one radiotherapy machine for several million people," says Massoud Samiei, Head of the IAEA´s Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT).

IAEA´s Role in Controlling Cancer

This is where IAEA steps in to help control cancer.

"With expertise in radiotherapy and nuclear medicine, the IAEA´s biggest contribution is in diagnosis, screening and radiotherapy. For instance, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mongolia, Namibia and Uganda established their first radiotherapy facilities with IAEA assistance," says Rethy Chhem, Director of the Agency´s Division of Human Health.

The Agency upgrades and calibrates the radiotherapy equipment - a service that is not obvious but crucial to radiotherapy. Delivering the correct dose of radiation to the cancer site is vital for successful cancer treatment; overdosing may result in death and under-dosing will not rid the body of cancerous cells.

Many developing nations cannot afford or access calibration services, and therefore the IAEA has been working with the WHO for the past three decades to offer support. The Agency´s calibration assistance is delivered to 1 500 hospitals in 116 countries that lack the infrastructure to conduct their own checks.

Moving beyond technical support, IAEA launched PACT in 2004. PACT focuses on collaborating with the WHO and international cancer organizations, as well as national cancer control programmes. To date, inter-agency missions led by PACT, or imPACT missions, have helped more than 20 Member States review and assess their cancer control capacities and needs in order to develop 10 to 15-year strategic plans to expand radiation medicine and other cancer care facilities.

Understanding that each country´s needs are unique and specific, PACT and partners have developed pilot cancer control programmes in seven countries thus far: Albania, Ghana, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, United Republic of Tanzania, Vietnam and Yemen. The seven pilot countries, or PACT Model Demonstration Sites, serve as models to demonstrate that effective, sustainable national cancer control programmes and action plans can be developed and successfully implemented to address a nation´s specific needs.

If a concerted global effort is not made to stem and reverse the epidemic, 150 million cancer cases will occur in developing countries by 2020, and, three in five of these cases will need radiation therapy. By acting on its mandate to "accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world," the IAEA is working to establish safe and effective radiotherapy for treating cancer patients, especially in developing countries, as part of a national cancer control programme.

Last update: 13 November 2014