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IAEA and Islamic Development Bank Harness the Power of Innovation to Address Women’s Cancers

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One year after the launch of the IsDB-IAEA Women’s Cancers Partnership Initiative, representatives of both organizations and beneficiary countries came together alongside donors to take stock of progress made thus far and leverage innovative ideas to fight women’s cancers. Around 250 participants attended this virtual event on the margins of the 64th IAEA General Conference, held in Vienna from 21-25 September.

Women in many low- and middle- income countries lack access to lifesaving cancer care, particularly for breast and cervical cancers. This Initiative intends to increase access to the diagnosis and treatment of these two cancers and builds on years of collaboration between the IAEA and the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) to support common Member States in improving cancer control. Since its launch, the two organizations have worked to jumpstart implementation of the Initiative and bring additional partners on board to maximize the impact for women and girls.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi spoke of the progress achieved under the Initiative, which includes helping countries develop robust funding requests and mobilizing new partners and donors. “The Women’s Cancers Partnership Initiative with IsDB has already shown what can be achieved for our Member States with new financing, partners and strengthened relations with UN agencies. But this is just the beginning. This Partnership can and must go to higher heights.”

“As the global cancer burden continues to increase, international organisations, including multi-lateral development banks, are united in the desire to work together to address this challenge,” said Bandar Hajjar, IsDB President. “Developing new and strengthening existing partnerships is one of my key priorities for our Bank. I am very proud of this important Initiative to fight women’s cancers, which will contribute to saving over a million women’s lives from breast cancer and almost 4 million deaths from cervical cancer over the next decade.”

Bente Mikkelsen, Director of Non-Communicable Diseases at the World Health Organization (WHO), spoke of economic and geographical disparities in cancer care.  “A woman with breast cancer living in sub-Saharan Africa has only a 20 or 30% likelihood of surviving five years, compared to 80 or 90% for women in Europe. This is not acceptable.” She also highlighted the WHO’s desire to build on its successful work with the IAEA, other UN partners and stakeholders to provide high-quality cancer care for all women with cancer around the world.

Increased access to cancer care for women

Representatives from countries benefitting from the Initiative provided updates on progress in expanding access to cancer care for women. 17 countries are initially anticipated to receive support under the Initiative; additional countries are expected to join based on their projects as the programme progresses.

“Over the past decade, the Government of Uzbekistan with the help of the IAEA and IsDB has significantly strengthened radiotherapy and brachytherapy in 15 cancer centres, leading to improved access to quality diagnostic and treatment services on a national scale and particularly benefitting women with breast- and cervical cancer,” said Shakhrukh Sharakhmetov, Deputy Minister of Health in Uzbekistan. “However, we want to go further. Therefore, the Government of Uzbekistan, joined by the IsDB the IAEA, are preparing a comprehensive project to further develop oncology services that meets highest standards.”

He noted that this multimillion-dollar project comprises an integrated and complementary set of planned activities ranging from screening to diagnosis and treatment. It will also include state-of-the art training of oncology staff in brachytherapy, a vital technology that offers life-saving radiation treatment to women with cervical cancer.

Sika Bella Kaboré, First Lady of Burkina Faso presented on the cancer burden in the country and urged additional measures in the fight against cancer. “In 2018 in Burkina Faso, 11,643 new cancer cases were registered in health districts and centres. If nothing is done, in the next five years we will count more than 16,000 new cases of cancer,” she said, noting that two centres for radiotherapy are currently being established in the country. “The progress made since the launch of the Initiative should lead to accelerating the mobilization of partners and donors to mitigate the pain of women affected by breast and cervical cancer, as well as their families.”

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in Bangladesh, followed by cervical cancer, said Sanowar Hossain, Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission of Bangladesh (BAEC). There is ongoing collaboration between Bangladesh and the IAEA to improve cancer diagnostics and treatment across the country, particularly for women in underserved communities. Hossain elaborated on the coordination provided by the BAEC in the development of a new project, which is currently under review by the IAEA. “We appreciate the role of both IAEA and IsDB to help launch this programme that will significantly increase access to lifesaving cancer services and help women and girls to thrive,” he added.

Leveraging innovative tools

Hayat Sindi, Senior Advisor to the IsDB President, Science, Technology and Innovation, announced the winners of the Call for Innovation, which was launched earlier this year to attract innovative ideas to address women’s cancers from applicants, especially young entrepreneurs and community groups from across the globe. Four cutting-edge proposals were selected as winners from the 89 applications received from 36 countries. IAEA experts reviewed proposals that fit within the organization’s mandate. “I am proud that these projects will work to improve the lives of women around the world,” Hayat said.

The winners each received a prize of US$ 50 000 from the IsDB to use towards implementing their project. The City Cancer Challenge Foundation (C/Can) won for an idea to improve capacity building of multidisciplinary teams in select urban areas. This would establish teams consisting of a variety of medical professionals delivering quality care for breast and cervical cancer.

Hassan Rushekh Mahmood of International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research won for his proposal to address breast and cervical cancer through a comprehensive screening toolkit for primary healthcare providers in rural settings.

A proposal from Samet Ayalti of ViraSoft, a digital health company, was selected for its simple phone application idea to help train pathologists in remote areas. This would be particularly helpful for pathologists in less accessible areas to improve their skills for better and earlier cancer detection.

Daniel Murokora from Brick by Brick, a training organization, was selected for a project aiming to combine an HPV immunization campaign for young girls with a community-based cervical cancer screening for their mothers in a local context.

The IsDB and IAEA are planning to hold a pledging event for the Women’s Cancers Partnership Initiative in 2021 to increase the number of beneficiary countries and enhance cancer services.

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