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Scientists Say Cancer 'Urgent Health Priority' in Developing Countries


According to a recent report published in the medical journal The Lancet, cancer is taking an increasing toll on people in poor countries. At least some of those deaths are preventable at a relatively low cost. Experts say it is time to wage war on cancer in the developing world in the same way that we fight HIV/AIDs.

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Julio Frenk, Professor of Public Health and International Development at the Harvard School of Public Health, says there is a general assumption in low and middle-income countries that cancer cannot be cured.

"It's not unlike what we faced with AIDS in the late 1990s, when antiretroviral therapy became available," he said. "That it's expensive; people say it was impossible; it was too complex. It was exactly the same skepticism that we have today around cancer."

He says it is time those attitudes changed.

"The success of AIDS treatment shows that actually when you're in very resource-constrained settings, you can actually diagnose and successfully treat and control a disease that otherwise, left without treatment, will produce enormous suffering and death," he said.

Eighty percent of cancer deaths take place in poor countries, but they are not receiving the funding to deal with the problem, says the study published Monday. Only five percent of global resources for cancer are spent in developing countries."

That is despite the fact that cancer is on the rise in poor countries. According to the report, rates of cancer in poor- and middle-income countries have increased markedly during the past three decades. In 1970, they accounted for 15 percent of newly reported cancers. In 2008, that figure had risen to 56 percent.

Felicia Kraus is director of the Harvard Global Equity Initiative and Associate Professor at the Harvard Medical School. She was herself diagnosed with breast cancer and received treatment in Mexico. She says her own experience made her realize the sharp divide between rich and poor when it comes to cancer treatment.

"The only thing that is worse than actually having to have chemotherapy is not being able to afford it or not being able to access it because you can't leave your children, you can't manage to sustain the therapy," she said.

She says many cancers can be treated with drugs that are not patented and can be produced at affordable prices.

"There are a whole list of cancers where systematic therapy and relatively inexpensive options - like Tamoxifen for breast cancer, off-patent generic options - are very effective at extending life, particularly with early detection," she said.

She says other relatively inexpensive steps should be taken such as educating populations about the risks of smoking. Vaccinations against cervical and liver cancer would also be an important preventative measure, she says.

The study in The Lancet was published by United States-based scientists who have formed the Global Task Force on Expanded Access to Cancer Care and Control in Developing Countries.

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