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Prompt Detection and Treatment: New United Nations Joint Global Programme to Prevent Cervical Cancer

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at the United Nations joint global programme on cervical cancer side event during the 60th IAEA General Conference.(Photo: E. Izewski/IAEA)

In 2012, over 260 000 women worldwide died of cervical cancer — equivalent of one woman dying every two minutes. Over 90% of these deaths occurred in developing countries.

Cervical cancer for women can potentially be prevented by vaccination against the human papilloma virus (HPV) and detected early by screening. Furthermore, cervical cancer is a potentially curable cancer that in too many cases is discovered too late to prevent morbidity or death. As a response to this health crisis of global proportions, a five-year United Nations Programme on Cervical Cancer Prevention and Control has been developed and presented at an IAEA General Conference side event today.

“The choice of cancer of the cervix for this global effort reflects the significant economic and human dimensions surrounding a cancer that occurs in women at the height of their productive years,” said May Abdel-Wahab, Director of the IAEA Division of Human Health.

The goal of the project is to achieve a 25% reduction in cervical cancer mortality by 2025 in participating countries, by reducing the number of cervical cancer cases and improving survival rates, she added.

Outputs include the development of national comprehensive cervical cancer control plans, increased HPV immunization, screening coverage as well as treatment for cervical pre-cancer. In addition, the project seeks to increase the capacity of health systems to diagnose and treat cervical cancer, including the provision of palliative care.

“The IAEA has a significant role in this initiative since radiation therapy, both external beam radiation therapy and brachytherapy, are important elements in the treatment of cervical cancer. Over 70% of women with cervical cancer need radiation therapy for cure or palliation,” said Abdel-Wahab, adding that radiotherapy improves control of the cancer locally in the pelvis and leads to greater survival rates.

Participants at the side event received comprehensive information about the programme and the involvement of the IAEA along with six other United Nations agencies, as part of the United Nations interagency Task Force on Non-Communicable Diseases to prevent and control cervical cancer.

Enhancing cancer care for women

The Programme, once launched at the end of this year, will provide technical assistance to governments in developing, implementing and evaluating national comprehensive cervical cancer programmes, participants learnt. The initial project will include six countries. International experts will also work with countries to mobilize the necessary resources to widen awareness through domestic, bilateral and multilateral channels and reduce morbidity and mortality from this disease.

It is estimated this specific vaccination for girls today would prevent around 600 000 of them developing cervical cancer later in their life — and 400 000 from dying from this preventable disease.

In this context, the panellists highlighted the importance of immunizing all adolescent girls against HPV and emphasised the critical need for effective treatment of pre-cancerous lesions for all women. This can significantly reduce cervical cancer deaths.

Further, IAEA experts highlighted the Agency’s unique mandate and role in radiation medicine encompassing nuclear medicine, diagnostic radiology and radiotherapy.

National capabilities in areas of radiation medicine vary widely, explained Eduardo Zubizarreta, Head of the Applied Radiation Biology and Radiotherapy Section at the IAEA. Access to quality radiotherapy, for example, is severely limited in low-and middle-income countries: these countries make up 85% of the world’s population yet have only about one-third of the world’s radiotherapy facilities, he added.

The panellists were unanimous in their view that over the first five-year period of the Programme, concerted and coordinated global efforts involving governmental and non-governmental partners are required to increase wide-ranging screening and treatment of cervical cancer. 

Nicholas Banatvala, Senior Advisor at the World Health Organisation and at the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on NCDs described the role of the interagency taskforce in facilitating collaboration of UN agencies for a more comprehensive solution to address the challenge of NCDs. “On cervical cancer our goal is to work with global and national partners to ensure that each participating country  has a functioning and sustainable high quality  national cervical cancer control programme in place at the end  of five years,” he said.

The seven agencies involved in this programme are: the World Health Organization, IAEA, International Agency for Research on Cancer, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, United Nations Population Fund, United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Women

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