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76th World Health Assembly: IAEA Highlights Role in Cancer Control and other Non-Communicable Diseases


The World Health Assembly was held from 21 to 30 May in Geneva. (Photo: IAEA) 

The IAEA is playing an active role in assisting countries to increase access to cancer care, as well as the many other beneficial applications of nuclear science and technology in key health areas. Addressing the 76th World Health Assembly (WHA) which convened in Geneva at the end of May, May Abdel-Wahab, Director of the IAEA Division of Human Health and Meena Singelee, Head of the IAEA Liaison Office in Geneva, spoke about the IAEA and WHO’s longstanding and close partnership. They highlighted the organizations’ close cooperation in key areas such as cancer care, nutrition, vector-borne diseases and on improving radiation protection and the safety of patients and health workers

Cancer Control and other Non-Communicable Diseases

Around half of all cancer patients need radiotherapy, but in low-income countries, only one in ten can access treatment. As the global annual cancer burden is expected to grow, the IAEA is assisting countries in setting up facilities for treating and diagnosing cancer through its Rays of Hope initiative.

Delivering the IAEA Statement on Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases, Singelee said: “The IAEA Rays of Hope flagship initiative, which has the strong support of the WHO, is an example of how the IAEA contributes to improvements in people’s lives by supporting low and middle income countries (LMICs) to establish and improve access to radiation-based medical technologies such as diagnostic radiology, nuclear medicine and radiotherapy services through needs assessments, training, expert advice and procurement of equipment.”

“An essential element to ensure the sustainability of the Rays of Hope intervention is having Anchor Centres, strong regional cancer centres of excellence which will provide support to training and education, quality assurance, research and innovation in the region”, said Abdel-Wahab. “Cancer centres are a major resource in ensuring a comprehensive approach to multidisciplinary cancer care and its planning. IAEA, together with the WHO, developed technical specifications for radiotherapy and a framework for setting up a cancer centre, taking into consideration the local context and resources,” she added.

The IAEA also enables countries to set up policies concerning radiotherapy in cancer management. In 2022, the IAEA partnered with the WHO and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to support Colombia, Lao People's Democratic Republic, the Syrian Arab Republic and Uzbekistan in integrating radiation medicine services into their national cancer care plans. A further ten countries: Cambodia, Comoros, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Fiji, Guinea, Jordan, Papua New Guinea, Sudan and Venezuela will receive cancer control assessments this year, which will be used to inform planning and resource mobilization of large-scale cancer control projects. For example, last year, the IAEA, working with the WHO, the IARC and the Islamic Development Bank, helped Uzbekistan plan and resource a large scale cancer control project. 

In addition to increasing access to cancer treatment in LMICs, the IAEA is also strengthening its close partnership with the WHO in a joint project aimed at eliminating cancers, which affect women and children. Every year, around 400 000 children and adolescents, and 8.8 million women develop cancer. Out of these numbers, fewer than 30 per cent of children with cancer are cured in LMICs. Cervical cancer kills 300 000 women in LMICs every year, despite being preventable and curable when detected early and managed effectively. According to the WHO, reasons impacting the likelihood of survival include delay or inaccuracy in diagnosis, inaccessible therapy, and abandonment of treatment.

“The IAEA has been focusing on assisting countries in improving cancer care for women and children, particularly in developing countries where there are significant difficulties in accessing services,” Singelee said. “Rays of Hope is helping in this regard by providing greater access to timely diagnosis and life-saving treatment — including diagnostic imaging and radiotherapy.”

In partnership with WHO, the IAEA has helped countries formulate national policies relating to cancer, build capacity in radiation medicine and mobilize resources for cancer care under the framework of the Global Programme to Eliminate Cervical Cancer and the Global Initiative on Childhood Cancer.

At the WHA, the IAEA highlighted the importance of medical imaging for cancer diagnosis and management. The IAEA promotes the safe and secure uses of medical imaging around the world and supports  the WHO Global Breast Cancer initiative (GBCI), established in 2021. “IAEA technical officers co-led two GBCI working groups on rapid diagnostics and cancer management. Joint efforts are necessary if we want to reduce the impact of breast cancer and improve the quality of care for those affected by this disease worldwide," Abdel-Wahab said.

The IAEA is also collaborating with the WHO on research into the possible links between early life nutrition and long term health outcomes. This study will provide guidance to LMICs on the relationship between nutrition in the first years of life and later childhood health, contributing to better understanding of non-communicable disease risk factors. It should also reveal information on the effectiveness of early life nutrition interventions to reduce later childhood obesity.

Collaboration with other UN and intergovernmental organizations

In addition to the WHO, the IAEA works with the UN Population Fund in the area of women’s cancer, with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in primary prevention and treatment for childhood cancer and with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on palliative care. The IAEA is also working closely with the World Bank, and development banks such as the Islamic Development Bank, to explore opportunities for countries to increase financing for cancer care resources.

Delivering the IAEA statement on collaboration with other UN and intergovernmental organizations, Singelee and Abdel-Wahab highlighted how IAEA flagship initiatives, such as Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) are contributing to pandemic preparedness and response through close collaboration with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the WHO and other partners. Through ZODIAC, the IAEA held training activities on Mpox and Lassa Fever with the WHO in Africa and Asia last year. 

The IAEA also works closely with UN partners on the Joint Radiation Emergency Plan of the International Organizations, which facilitates the coordinated response of relevant international organizations in case of a nuclear or radiological emergency.

During the week, Abdel-Wahab and Singelee met with national ministries of health and partner organizations to discuss collaboration and technical cooperation activities in areas of cancer and the IAEA’s flagship initiatives such as Rays of Hope, ZODIAC, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme and NUTEC Plastics. The IAEA, WHO and IARC delegations also discussed opportunities to strengthen collaboration through the Rays of Hope initiative.

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