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Cancer Rates Rising in Africa


Another African epidemic is taking the spotlight, cancer. Experts say aging and infectious diseases are increasing Africa's cancer burden. A new non-governmental group is trying to raise global awareness of the problem and held a meeting recently in London that brought together African health ministers and other interested participants. VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington.

More than any other region in the developing world, sub-Saharan Africa faces the twin burden of non-infectious diseases and infectious ones industrial nations conquered decades ago. Now, count cancer among the non-communicable ailments taking a growing toll in Africa.

"Unless we start taking action now to make a difference, then the existing health infrastructure in Africa is going to be overwhelmed by the coming increased cancer incidence coming down the road," said University of Oxford cancer physician David Kerr. "By 2020, it is projected there will be 15 million new cases of cancer every year and 70 percent of these will be in the developing world. In Africa by 2020, we expect there to be more than 1 million new cases of cancer every year."

Cancer killed more than 7 million people around the world in 2005, more than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. That number is expected to rise to more than 11 million each year by 2030.

That means cancer is no longer a disease of only affluent nations, but a health problem everywhere. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the main reasons are steadily aging populations, high smoking rates, and the spread of a lifestyle rich in fatty foods and poor in exercise.

The organization's former head of cancer research, Paul Kleihues, says newly industrializing nations are especially at risk.

"India, China and many Asian countries will adopt the Western lifestyle, and we see in these countries an increase in tumors that they rarely knew," he noted. "To what extent and how fast is difficult to predict."

In sub-Saharan Africa, high-infectious disease rates join aging and smoking to boost cancer rates. The region accounts for 70 percent of the tumors associated with AIDS, such as the skin cancer Kaposi's sarcoma, the most common male cancer in Africa. The most common female tumor in Africa is cancer of the cervix, a disease associated with human papillomavirus (HPV). The high prevalence of the Hepatitis B virus is causing many liver cancers.

Poor nutrition aggravates the situation because it compromises the immune system.

David Kerr says cancer survival rates in poor countries are often less than half those in industrial nations. In Africa, he says, cancer is a sentence to a painful and distressing death, because treatment and care are lacking.

That is why he has begun Oxford University's Africa-Oxford Cancer Consortium, called AfrOx, and organized a recent two-day international conference in London to raise global awareness about the issue. The meeting included 23 African health ministers, leading African medics, world-renowned cancer specialists, officials of the World Health Organization and development banks, investment bankers, and the Gates Foundation.

Kerr says the conference issued a London Declaration.

"This sets out some very simple precepts that say that we, the global cancer alliance, the global community, must support African health ministers to start preparing for cancer," he added.

The London Declaration set out a plan of action for African cancer care. It calls for vaccination against tumor-related infections, early diagnosis and screening, access to modern cancer treatment, and easing the pain of dying, now often medicated only by aspirin instead of stronger painkillers.

"We do need to bring some additional resources to bear, but it need not be a huge amount of money. Some of the curable childhood cancers can be treated for $1 a day," he said. "So although there are new cancers drugs that are terribly expensive, we would start building the pyramid from the bottom and we could use so-called generic drugs, which are available cheaply."

Kerr says the cancer conference declaration is being presented at the annual World Health Assembly of national health ministers now under way in Geneva and will be discussed at an African Union health ministers meeting in August. He is hopeful that it will stimulate more global attention and financial support to fight cancer in Africa.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if by 2020 we had reduced the projected number of cancers by, say, 20 percent?" he asked. "That would be a reasonable thing to aim for."