“We Can I Can”: Joining Forces to Win the Global Battle Against Cancer

IAEA hosted a high-level panel meeting to mark World Cancer Day. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

The critical need for bold action against cancer was highlighted at an IAEA high-level panel on 9 February to mark World Cancer Day. This commemoration each year is an opportunity for the world to unite and raise its voice against the growing burden of cancer. Stronger partnerships between the public and private sectors, political leadership, innovation, increased awareness and sustained financing are needed to counter this expanding health and development crisis, the panel concluded. The event was held under the patronage of the First Lady of Austria, Margit Fischer.

“Too many developing countries lack the personnel and equipment needed to provide timely diagnosis, and effective cancer treatments such as radiotherapy. In fact, nine out of 10 people in low-income countries have no access to radiotherapy,” said IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in his welcome address. “Let us work together to overcome the complex challenges which we face and bring effective cancer services to all people in need, everywhere in the world.”

Having witnessed  at first-hand the enormous challenges faced by doctors and nurses in treating cancer patients during his recent trip to Central America, Mr Amano said: “Cancer control was also a major issue for the government leaders whom I met in all six countries. They all want to improve cancer care for their people, and we at the IAEA are keen to help as much as possible.”

Cancer respects no boundaries, affecting people in both developed and developing countries, said Sabine Oberhauser, Austria’s Minister of Health. “Even within richer countries, there are inequalities in access to cancer therapies. It is not only a question of having a good medical system in place, but also of having good rehabilitation support for cancer patients and survivors.”

Supporting developing countries                                

Panel members explored ways to improve cancer survival rates in developing countries.  More than 5 million people succumb to cancer each year in low and middle-income countries. 80% of Africa’s one billion people have no access to radiotherapy. Some countries have only one cancer treatment centre serving millions of people, while many others lack treatment centres altogether.

Malika Issoufou Mahamadou, First Lady of Niger, talked about the difficulties Africa is facing in dealing with its growing cancer burden. “We should not accept that women, children and men are dying from cancers which are preventable and curable,” she said in a video message.

The panellists also shared country-specific perspectives on cancer control. Speaking about positive developments in Honduras, Vice Minister of Health Delia Rivas highlighted the recent launch of the country’s national cancer control strategy and programme. She thanked the IAEA for its timely support for training activities for cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Rakiatou Christelle Kaffa-Jackou, Niger’s Minister of Development Cooperation, acknowledged the IAEA’s support in radiotherapy training, constructing a cancer centre and facilitating contacts with donors. She also identified key factors to be addressed in strengthening strategies for cancer control in Niger. “Social and cultural issues, lack of acceptance of cancer as a health problem and seeking treatment only in the final stages of the disease are among the serious challenges my country faces,” she said. “It is not an easy task trying to change the mindset of people.”

Partnering to strengthen the fight against cancer

Nicole Denjoy, the Vice-Chair of the Global Diagnostic Imaging, Health Care, IT & Radiation Therapy Trade Association (DITTA) emphasized the role of the private sector. “We have a vital role to play to ensure access to cancer services by advancing quality and innovative technologies for the affordable diagnosis and treatment of cancer in low and middle-income countries.”

A proper infrastructure and continuous training of health care professionals in  the use of medical equipment have to be factored into a country’s national cancer programme, she added.

Ernest Belembaogo, Director of Gabon’s National Cancer Institute, acknowledged the IAEA’s contribution to strengthening his country’s cancer control programme. “The support we received from the IAEA for training medical staff in radiotherapy and related areas has helped our country to move forward in establishing quality cancer services,” he said. “To overcome this threat to global health and development, it is essential that we have the political will, as well as committed national leadership.”

Neira Kameric, a survivor of childhood cancer and founder of the Bosnian Cancer Survivor Network ‘MladiCe BiH’ (‘The Youth Will’), highlighted the critical role played by non-governmental organizations, particularly in low and middle-income countries, in demanding access to better cancer services, and offering support to cancer patients and their families. “We had to fight for many years to get our association the recognition it deserves,” she said. “I was 12 when I was diagnosed with cancer and underwent my treatment. There was no psychological support. Childhood cancer is a family disease.  Everyone is affected and needs support.”

In her concluding remarks, Nelly Enwerem-Bromson, Director of the IAEA’s Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT), said that the cancer crisis poses a serious threat to health and development, especially in low and middle income countries. “Cancer alone is draining over US$2 trillion from the world economy annually. This issue deserves higher visibility on the global political and economic agenda.” She pointed out that only 1.6% of all development assistance for health was channelled towards non-communicable diseases in 2014. Without increased support, severe gaps will remain in providing vital cancer control services, training enough health professionals and expanding access to quality infrastructure and equipment, particularly for those most vulnerable.

Ms Enwerem-Bromson closed the event with a call to IAEA Member States, United Nations agencies, private sector companies, cancer survivors and others to come together to ensure access to comprehensive cancer care and life-saving interventions for  everyone, everywhere.

Last update: 10 March 2016