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IAEA Supports Breast Cancer Screening along the Amazon River

Manaus, Brazil

Mammography machine on board the ship Carlos Chagas. (Photo: Navy Nuclear Development Directorate)

Women living in Amazon River communities will from this year have increased access to breast cancer screening thanks to two new mammography units installed on Brazilian navy ships delivering vital health services along South America’s biggest waterway. Procured by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the two machines carried onboard the ships Soares de Meirelles and Carlos Chagas will treble the current capacity for such tests in the remote region. Last month, Soares de Meirelles embarked on the first of several long journeys planned for 2022 along the river.  

In Brazil, breast cancer represents almost 30 per cent of all types of cancer with approximately 40 per cent of patients only diagnosed in the advanced stages of the disease. Screening is used to detect cancers at an early stage when they can be treated most effectively. The first stage in the screening involves an X ray (mammogram) of the breast. With the two new units, each ship is able to perform up to 1000 such screenings per year.

“In order to step up the global fight against a growing cancer burden, it is absolutely necessary to increase equitable access to screening and other preventive health care services. Thanks to this unique partnership, timely and effective breast cancer services can now be delivered also to these remote areas in Brazil,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, who last week launched a new initiative called Rays of Hope to help enhance access to cancer care services around the world.

This year, the two newly equipped ships will carry out eight planned journeys of up to 45 days each. They will travel from the Amazon River delta to the borders of Colombia, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela whose communities could also benefit from such services. Due to their design, navy ships can navigate along the narrow and shallow waters to bring much-needed healthcare directly to women living by the river’s banks. 

Women in the Amazon River region could previously only access mammography services by travelling to the nearest health facility, sometimes for several days. As an example, women in the city of Tabatinga, near the border with Peru and Colombia, had to travel 1,600 km, over seven days, to receive such screening services at the healthcare centre in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. 

The two mammography units were procured and installed on the ships in 2021 through the IAEA Technical Cooperation programme. The Agency also provided funds for training of personnel operating the equipment.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Soares de Meirelles succeeded in performing around 300 mammograms in 10 cities in October 2021. In 2022, both Soares de Meirelles and Carlos Chagas  will provide the necessary screening along the Amazon River.

The ship Carlos Chagas with a mammography unit on board. (Photo: Navy Nuclear Development Directorate)

Delivering cancer screening services to one of the most remote areas in the world is an example of the IAEA’s assistance in increasing access to cancer care globally, which is inadequate and unevenly distributed. To further address the urgent needs in diagnostic imaging, nuclear medicine and radiation therapy, and in the delivery of early treatment, the IAEA’s Rays of Hope initiative will help close the global gaps in cancer care.

The IAEA supports countries in establishing radiotherapy services and in integrating these into comprehensive national cancer control plans. The Agency offers training for nuclear and radiation medicine personnel, technical advisory services, and assists in the financing and procurement of equipment. 

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