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IAEA Supports Global Efforts in Fighting the Cancer Burden

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Dazhu Yang, Deputy Director General for the Department for Technical Cooperation, makes opening remarks on behalf of the Director General ahead of the panel discussion. (Photo: Y. Yustantiana/IAEA)

Senior representatives from cancer centres around the world highlighted the importance of IAEA support for improving their services. The discussion was part of a side event focusing on ‘Delivering Results Against Cancer — Together we can make a change in fighting cancer,’ at the IAEA’s annual General Conference. It highlighted the support received by Member States in capacity building, technical advice and procurement of tools and equipment in the fight against cancer.  

“Twenty-five percent of the Technical Cooperation programme is dedicated to supporting health projects, the majority of which is directed solely towards fighting cancer through technical support, training and mobilizing resources,” said Dazhu Yang, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of Department of Technical Cooperation Department. “We are making a difference, but we know that much more will be required if we are going to overcome this challenge.”

Daniela Nika, General Technical Director of the University Hospital Centre “Mother Teresa” in Albania’s capital Tirana, highlighted the recent advances in cancer care in her country. “We combined government funding with IAEA assistance to increase radiotherapy services where I work. With the recent installation of a state-of-the-art LINAC radiotherapy machine and the intensive training for clinical staff in my hospital it is now possible to treat over 1 300 patients a year,” she said.

LINACs and cobalt-60 (Co-60) machines are two of the most commonly used technologies for external beam radiation therapy, a procedure in which high-energy radiation beams are used to kill tumour cells.

The IAEA has worked for many decades with its Member States and other international organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), to support the safe and effective use of nuclear techniques in medicine, particularly in developing countries.

Sokha Eav, Head of Onco-Hematology Department at Cambodia’s first cancer centre at the Calmette Hospital in the capital Phnom Penh, acknowledged IAEA support. Until the centre was completed earlier this year, Cambodia had only one radiotherapy machine. “The Centre is a great step towards enhancing medical care in Cambodia,” he said. “This achievement has been possible thanks to continuous support from the IAEA in the provision of expertise related to the design of the Centre, the commissioning of the radiotherapy and nuclear medicine machines, as well as specialized academic and clinical training of health professionals.”

The Cambodian government dedicated resources to the construction of the centre, along with a contribution from the IAEA for fellowships, training and additional equipment including a gamma camera used for body scans and a shielded fume hood to prepare radiopharmaceuticals. Cambodia is now planning to have two more regional centres completed by 2025, through which 70 percent of the country’s population will have access to cancer care.

The IAEA’s Department for Technical Cooperation hosts a side event at the 62nd General Conference highlighting results being delivered in response to cancer. (Photo: Y. Yustantiana/IAEA)

The need for advanced training for medical professionals

According to WHO, cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, responsible for 8.8 million deaths in 2015, two-thirds of which occured in developing countries. Radiotherapy is essential for the treatment of cancer; however, large numbers of those who develop the disease struggle to get the treatment they need. Some countries have just one centre serving millions of people, while many others lack treatment centres altogether.

Due to the complexity of radiotherapy treatment, radiation oncologists, medical physicists and radiation therapy technologists — the three types of medical professionals needed for the use of this technology — require rigorous training to ensure a safe and successful treatment of patients as well as safety of the professionals involved. The shortage of specialised professionals in the cancer field in general and radiation medicine in particular was highlighted by panellists.

Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are addressing their training needs through courses adapted for teams from cancer centres with similar facilities and requirements from across 20 countries. “The advantage is that each member of the team sees how their skills complement each other,” said Juliano Cerci, President of the Brazilian Society of Nuclear Medicine and President-Elect of the Latin American Association of Nuclear Medicine Societies. “This is an excellent example of South-South cooperation. It draws together experts and institutions to build knowledge and skills while raising the quality and effectiveness of radiotherapy services in their home countries.”

Through an IAEA project, which looks to strengthen skills in diagnostic and treatment of cancer with a comprehensive approach, almost 200 specialists have so far been trained in six week-long courses since 2016. In addition, 15 students from 12 countries attended the first IAEA-supported Master’s course on advanced radiotherapy last year, co-hosted by the Chilean Arturo López Pérez Foundation (FALP) and the University of Los Andes.

Noureddine Benjaafar, Head of the Department of Radio-Oncology at Morocco’s National Oncology Institute, described the advances the country has made in upgrading both equipment and personnel skills for high precision three-dimensional radiotherapy — cancer treatment that shapes radiation beams to match the shape of the tumour. With the IAEA’s support, staff from eight major teaching hospitals providing radiotherapy services have received training, with 18 fellows from six hospitals studying high precision techniques for radiotherapy and brachytherapy at hospitals in Belgium, France and India.

He also explained the importance of his Centre being recognised as a Designated Centre for professional nuclear education in nuclear science and technology, part of the African Regional Cooperative Agreement for Research, Development and Training related to Nuclear Science and Technology: “Our Centre has served to improve services nationwide, and also helped to expand the knowledge of providers nationally and amongst French speaking African countries in the field of nuclear medicine and radiotherapy.”

In conclusion, speakers emphasized the importance of the threat cancer poses to health and development, especially in low and middle-income countries, and that collaborative efforts to combat cancer can deliver real impact. With the combined efforts of governments, organizations, professional associations and leading NGOs working as partners, innovative technical and financial solutions can be provided to countries around the world.

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