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The global agenda on cancer

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the Director-General of the World Health Organization. As a health scholar, advocate and diplomat, Ghebreyesus has first-hand experience in research, operations, and leadership in emergency responses, and served in Ethiopia’s federal government for over a decade as Minister of Health and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

We all have friends and family who have lived – and died – with cancer. Cancer is one of the world’s leading causes of death, and its burden is growing. In 2021, the world crossed a sobering new threshold – an estimated 20 million people were diagnosed with cancer, and 10 million died. These numbers will continue to rise rapidly in the decades ahead. And yet all cancers can be treated, some can be cured, and many can be prevented.

Yet care for cancer, like so many other diseases, reflects the inequalities and inequities of our world. The survival of children diagnosed with cancer is more than 80 per cent in high income countries, and less than 30 per cent in low and middle income countries. Likewise, breast cancer survival five years after diagnosis now exceeds 80 per cent in most high income countries, compared with 66 per cent in India and just 40 per cent in South Africa.

Cancer cases are rising most rapidly in poorer countries where comprehensive treatment is generally not available. Over 80 per cent of the 1.3 billion tobacco users worldwide live in low and middle income countries, and less than 15 per cent of low income countries are able to offer cancer care to their populations.

These devastating inequalities remind us that we are failing much of the world. We will not achieve the target in the Sustainable Development Goals of a one-third reduction in premature mortality from noncommunicable diseases by 2030 without strong political commitment, backed by investment.

It is against this backdrop that we commemorate the partnership between the World Health Organization (WHO) and the IAEA and the launch of IAEA’s Rays of Hope, which is designed to address a persistent inequality in access to radiotherapy.

“On the occasion of World Cancer Day, we call for strengthening national cancer capacity, including by implementing new WHO-IAEA guidance to set up and build capacity for high-quality cancer centres”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization.

A Global Response

Rays of Hope is another landmark in the accelerating global response to cancer, founded on universal health coverage and addressing the underlying determinants of health.

Between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of cancers can be prevented by implementing evidence-based prevention strategies against common risk factors like tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, air pollution and some chronic infections. Many cancers have a high chance of cure if diagnosed early and treated appropriately. As laid out in WHO’s Global Report on Cancer (2020) strategic investments in cancer as part of health system strengthening could save more than 7 million lives by 2030.

In 2018, WHO called for the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem, and almost all countries have now committed to achieving that target, the first time the world has committed to eliminating a cancer.

This dream is made feasible by vaccines against human papillomavirus (HPV), the pathogen responsible for 99 per cent of cervical cancers. And yet these life-saving tools have remained out of reach for many of the world’s poorest: 79 countries that account for two-thirds of the global burden of cervical cancer are yet to introduce HPV vaccines, because of high prices and inadequate supply. WHO has now prequalified four HPV vaccines, improving supply and reducing prices, we have supported 7 governments to introduce HPV vaccines into national immunization schedules, and are supporting others to improve treatment services and palliative care.

Also in 2018, we launched the Global Initiative for Childhood Cancer supporting 50 countries strengthen their capacities including by optimizing health workforce and constructing new cancer centres. More recently, we announced a US$ 200 million partnership with St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the USA to provide quality-assured medicines to low and middle income countries.

Just last year, we launched the WHO Global Breast Cancer Initiative to reduce deaths from the world’s most commonly-diagnosed cancer by 2.5 per cent annually, saving an estimated 2.5 million lives by 2040, by empowering women and strengthening cancer control efforts.

These integrated global cancer initiatives are being implemented by more than 200 partners around the globe, including many development banks who have significantly increased their investments in cancer research, prevention and care.

Improving cancer control towards 2030

The devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic go far beyond the disease itself, badly disrupting health systems and hampering access to services and care across the entire health sector. Half of countries report disruptions in cancer screening and treatment. The effects of this will be felt for decades to come.

Getting back on track requires a redoubling of our efforts, based on a foundation of solidarity and partnership and solidarity. On the occasion of World Cancer Day, we call for strengthening national cancer capacity, including by implementing new WHO-IAEA guidance to set up and build capacity for high-quality cancer centres.

Working together, we can write a new chapter in cancer prevention and control.

Millions of lives depend upon it.


February, 2022
Vol. 63-1

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