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Director General Calls for Increased Collaboration to Fight Cervical Cancer at IAEA World Cancer Day Event

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IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi gave the opening remarks at the Agency's event to mark World Cancer Day. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

How to best work together to ensure that no woman dies from preventable or treatable cervical cancer was the centre of discussion among human health and radiation medicine experts as well as high-level officials at an IAEA event this morning to mark World Cancer Day.

Around 90% of patients who die from cervical cancer live in low- and middle-income countries. Once diagnosed, cervical cancer can often be treated effectively with radiotherapy, but proper facilities, human resources and other infrastructure are prerequisite to such treatment. 

In his opening remarks at the event, titled Together in the Fight against Cancer, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi emphasized the importance of partnerships to improve diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer.

“Today is an inspiring opportunity,” he said. “I see a community of people here gathered together around a part of our work which connects us in a unique way — caring for others and trying to save lives. We have a chance to put our talent together to do this.”

Mr Grossi spoke of unequal access to potentially life-saving cervical cancer treatment, highlighting disparities between richer and poorer countries. “Cervical cancer is treatable and curable for those living in more developed countries. But in poor countries, a diagnosis is a serious problem,” he said.

The IAEA supports countries to improve access to nuclear medicine, radiotherapy and dosimetry services. This includes training for various specialists, such as medical physicists and radiation oncologists, along with assistance in setting up radiotherapy facilities and acquiring equipment. 

Mr Grossi highlighted select IAEA efforts to improve global cancer care, such as creating a registry of radiotherapy units around the world and conducting imPACT reviews through the Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT) to help countries determine their needs regarding cancer care.

While recognizing the importance of these existing efforts, he said that we must do more. “The best way to do more is to partner. Working together will multiply our voices and maximize our efforts."

Prevention and treatment

May Abdel-Wahab, Director of the IAEA Division of Human Health, discussed the prevalence of cervical cancer and best practices for preventing it. “Cervical cancer kills 300 000 women per year, representing 10 deaths every 20 minutes. If they would be the victims of a natural disaster, it would make the headlines and decisions would be taken to tackle it,” she said. The best way to prevent cervical cancer is through HPV vaccines, she added, which can also prevent other types of cancer. 

Abdel-Wahab also spoke of the IAEA’s role in treating cervical cancer. “Over 70% of cervical cancer patients in the developing world require radiotherapy,” she said. “Through the UN Joint Global Programme on Cervical Cancer Prevention and Control, the IAEA works with UN Agencies to support radiotherapy in Member States.” 

Radiotherapy is an option for cervical cancer cases in both earlier and later stages of the disease. Brachytherapy, a very targeted form of radiotherapy, allows a precise dose to be delivered to the tumour, avoiding nearby healthy tissue. During the event, experts in radiation oncology, nuclear medicine, nutrition and radiation protection presented on the multi-disciplinary nuclear techniques for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer.

“The IAEA supports countries not only with radiotherapy, but also through nuclear nutrition techniques to ensure that patients have the best chance of surviving cancer,” said Alexia Alford, Nutrition Specialist in the IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications. “We can use isotopic techniques to determine the energy requirements of a patient receiving treatment for cervical cancer, as well as radiation techniques to monitor body composition and bone density throughout cancer care.”

Joint initiatives

A panel discussion provided an overview of various initiatives launched to fight global cervical cancer, such as the Global Cervical Cancer Elimination Initiative and the United Nations Joint Global Programme on Cervical Cancer Prevention and Control as well as the recent Women’s Cancers Partnerships Initiative between the IAEA and the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB).

Emphasizing the importance of collaboration, Lisa Stevens, Director of the IAEA Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT), spoke of the Women’s Cancers Partnership Initiative with the Islamic Development Bank. “This initiative seeks to increase survival rates, improve the quality of life in Member States and enhance access to effective, quality and affordable cancer services,” she said. “This is just one of the ways that the PACT team is working across the Agency and with other partners to improve lives.”

The panelists were Ghislain D’Hoop, Resident Representative of Belgium to the IAEA; Azzeddine Farhane, Resident Representative of Morocco to the IAEA; Mikaela Kumlin Granit, Resident Representative of Sweden to the IAEA and Chair of the Board of Governors; Shannon Hader, Deputy Executive Director, Programme, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS); Elizabeth Mattfeld, Project Coordinator, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC); May Abdel-Wahab, IAEA Director of the Division of Human Health; Lisa Stevens, IAEA Director of the Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT), and Shaukat Abdulrazak, IAEA Director of the Division for Africa.

Shannon Hader, panellist and Deputy Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), discussed the links between HIV and cervical cancer along with the logic behind coordinating efforts on cervical cancer diagnosis and prevention. “Women with HIV are five times more likely to develop invasive cervical cancer and are more likely to develop it at earlier ages.”

In conjunction with the IAEA's marking of World Cancer Day, the Permanent Mission of Sweden, in cooperation with PACT and Elekta, held an event to highlight the recently launched Women’s Cancers Partnership Initiative.

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