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WHO: One-Third of All Cancer Deaths Are Preventable

  • Lisa Schlein

A flash mob participants walk in front of a hoarding spreading awareness on cancer in Hyderabad, India, February 3, 2012.

A flash mob participants walk in front of a hoarding spreading awareness on cancer in Hyderabad, India, February 3, 2012.

The World Health Organization reports one-third of all cancer deaths are preventable. But, a global survey prepared for World Cancer Day, Monday, finds more than half of all countries do not have a comprehensive cancer plan that could save lives.

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide. The World Health Organization reports 7.6 million people died from cancer in 2008 and almost 13 million new cases of the disease are diagnosed every year.

WHO says more than two-thirds of these new cases and deaths occur in developing countries and are continuing to increase at an alarming rate. The medical officer in WHO’s Department for Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion, Andreas Ullrich, says the future outlook is grim.

“With population aging, in particular exposure to major risk factors like tobacco, we expect that over the next 20 years the number of new cases per year will double …We know that physical inactivity, obesity, tobacco use, alcohol use are major risk factors for cancer," said Ullrich. "So, we expect, particularly in the metropolitan areas of the developing world, a major increase in cancer.”

Ullrich says cancer need not be a death sentence. He notes people can prevent up to one-third of deaths by changing their lifestyles. He says modifying risks from tobacco and the harmful use of alcohol, eating better and exercising more to stave off obesity can save lives.

He notes that some cancers are preventable through vaccinations.

“Infections can be prevented through vaccination like hepatitis B, a cause of liver cancer, and we can vaccinate against human papilloma virus," said Ullrich. "We know it is a cause for cervical cancer in women and we have vaccines. And, we hope to prevent cancer. On the other side, the care part is also very promising. We have a huge progress in clinical medicine to treat cancer if detected early.”

Ullrich says there are many low-cost and effective strategies that countries with limited resources can use to detect and screen various cancers, including cervical and breast cancers.

A WHO survey finds more than half of all countries worldwide lack a comprehensive cancer plan. It says these governments are struggling to prevent cancer and provide treatment and chronic care to patients.

Responses from 185 countries reveal major gaps in cancer control planning and services.

The survey reveals only 17 percent of the African countries and 27 percent of the low-income countries have control plans to prevent, detect, treat and care for cancer patients. None have a budget to support implementation.
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