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IAEA Highlights Support to Combat Cancer and COVID at Global Health Meeting

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148th session of the WHO Executive Board, Geneva, Switzerland, 18 January 2021

148th session of the WHO Executive Board, Geneva, Switzerland, 18 January 2021. (Photo: C. Black/WHO)

Close collaboration between the IAEA and World Health Organization (WHO) has contributed to tackling both cancer and COVID-19, IAEA leaders said at the WHO’s 148th Executive Board meeting this week. The double burden that COVID-19 and cancer pose to patients in low- and middle-income countries is of growing concern, and continued cooperation between the two organizations has been critical during the global crisis.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented significant setbacks in cancer care,” said May Abdel-Wahab, Director of the IAEA Division of Human Health in a virtual statement to the WHO Board today. Even before the pandemic spread globally, access to nuclear and radiation medicine was limited in many low-and middle-income countries, with inadequate or non-existent cancer prevention, screening, early diagnosis and treatment services.

Abdel-Wahab highlighted how with the WHO and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the IAEA has, throughout the pandemic, continued to help countries advance their comprehensive cancer control programmes through its Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy, which involves assessing countries’ needs, assisting with planning and mobilizing partnerships and resources. “Thanks to this ongoing collaboration, Member States continue receiving these assessments despite COVID-19,” she said.

The IAEA provides training for radiation oncologists, medical physicists, radiologists and other professionals worldwide. The IAEA also assists countries in setting up facilities for radiotherapy and nuclear medicine, and to acquire equipment for diagnosing and treating cancer.

Abdel-Wahab explained that the IAEA supports fellowships, education and training workshops, and fosters the exchange of scientific and technical information through Coordinated Research Projects on cancer, including clinical trials. She also highlighted the IAEA’s role in key global initiatives on cancer such as the UN Inter-Agency Task Force for Non-Communicable Diseases and the UN Joint Global Programme on Cervical Cancer Prevention and Control. “Our efforts contribute to WHO-led global efforts towards an integrated approach to cancer control and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals."

Responding to a pandemic

The IAEA has a longstanding record of developing and deploying nuclear and related techniques for the rapid and accurate detection of animal and zoonotic diseases such as Avian influenza, Ebola and Zika, and has stepped-in to support countries in their efforts to tackle COVID-19.

“The IAEA has built Member State capacities in using real time RT-PCR diagnostic machines. To date, the IAEA has delivered support to 285 designated national laboratories in 127 countries and territories around the world to tackle the pandemic,” said Luis Longoria-Gandara, Director of the IAEA Division for Latin America and the Caribbean, in a virtual statement to the WHO Executive Board.

Since March 2020, the IAEA has contributed to strengthening the global response to COVID-19 by providing diagnostic equipment including RT-PCR diagnostic machines and training in diagnostic techniques. In addition, it provided RT-PCR kits and consumables, biosafety cabinets and equipment for sampling, testing and control, as well as personal protection equipment.

Complementing this assistance, the IAEA has delivered training through webinars and online educational videos in several languages, and provided customized advice to laboratories. “Collaboration with WHO has been essential to reach more than four thousand professionals from labs globally,” Longoria-Gandara said.

As a member of the WHO-led COVID-19 UN Crisis Management Team, the IAEA continues to cooperate with the WHO and FAO, and enable coherent coordinated action that leverages synergies and ensures transparency and accountability in the response to COVID-19.

The IAEA’s operation to provide COVID-19 assistance has been the biggest in the IAEA’s history, mobilizing over €27 million in funding from donor countries and the private sector.

The IAEA’s statements are helping to inform the WHO’s Executive Board this year on the IAEA’s efforts to support pandemic containment and ensure cancer treatment reaches those in need. The Executive Board is a governing body of the WHO and responsible for setting the agenda of the annual World Health Assembly.

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