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WHO Says 40 Percent of Cancer Deaths Are Preventable

The World Health Assembly is considering a Global Action Plan Against Cancer that emphasizes prevention as the best cure. The World Health Organization reports cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, with more than 70 percent of these deaths occurring in low and middle income countries. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

At just 13-years old, Mariam John was diagnosed with bone cancer of the leg. With the only hope of treatment at a hospital far away, Mariam and her grandmother were forced to take a long and expensive journey from their small village.

But by the time the young African girl reached the hospital, her cancer was too far advanced and she died. She is one out of 7.6 million patients diagnosed with cancer who die every year.

If nothing is done to change the level of risk, the World Health Organization predicts cancer deaths will rise by 50 percent by 2030 to 11.4 million.

WHO cancer control medical officer, Andreas Ullrich, says there are known ways to fight cancer.

"For example, we know that cancer, to a large extent, approximately 40-percent could be prevented by reducing known risk factors such as tobacco, unhealthy diet, obesity, alcohol consumption and some infections," said Ullrich.

WHO's Global Action Plan is based on this knowledge.

WHO cancer-control medical officer Richard Lessard says the four-points in the action plan includes prevention strategies, such as no smoking, more physical activity, healthier diets and immunization against Hepatitis B to avoid liver cancer.

"Cure what is curable. Around 40 percent of cancer are curable if early detection and diagnostic treatment are available," said Lessard. "Relieve pain and improve quality of life by making pain-reducing medicine opiates accessible and increasing access to psycho-social and spiritual support for patients and their families. The fourth goal; manage for success by developing a national cancer control program and by strengthening health care system."

Until recently, cancer was thought to be a problem of wealthy developed countries. WHO Regional Director for Africa, Luis Gomes Sambo, says evidence shows cancer is a huge problem in Africa.

"In 2002, cancer killed about 400,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa. And if no interventions are put in place to improve the attention in this area, the number of deaths will increase in 2020 to 600,000 a year," said Sambo.

Dr. Sambo says African countries must allocate greater resources to cancer-control programs in their national health budgets and WHO must support these efforts.