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World Said to Be on Brink of Cancer Epidemic

International health agencies say the world is on the brink of a cancer epidemic. The World Health Organization reports 7.6 million people died of the disease in 2005. It predicts the number of cancer deaths and new cases of the disease will rise astronomically in the coming years, unless action is taken now to reverse smoking trends and provide treatment to patients in developing countries. To mark World Cancer Day, Monday, health campaigners are sending out a message that cancer need not and should not be a death sentence. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Cigarette commercials are no longer broadcast, at least not in the wealthy industrialized countries.

"Tobacco smoking is really the major problem that we are facing in public health at the present time," said Peter Boyle, the director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer. He says cancer is a worldwide problem. The biggest rates of increase are in developing and newly industrialized countries, where more than 70 percent of all cancer deaths are expected to occur.

He says cigarette smokers, as well as pipe and cigar smokers, are at increased risk of getting cancers of the lung, stomach, kidney and cervix, as well as leukemia.

"If the current smoking pattern continues, we can expect to have 150 million deaths, attributable to smoking in the first 25 years of this century. Between 2025 and 2050, the effect of this smoking epidemic which started in the last half of the last century in the low and middle-resource countries will kick in and we expect to have 300 million deaths in the second quarter of this century. And, in we estimate that in the last half of this century, we will have 500 million deaths from tobacco smoking if trends continue," he added.

It takes about 20 to 30 years from the time a person begins smoking for a cancer to develop. Since people in the developing world started taking up the habit several decades after the developed countries, the full extent of cancer-related deaths has not yet been seen.

Boyle says the good news is there is time to prevent many of these deaths from happening.

"Stopping smoking reduces, leads to a reduction in the risk, the elevated risk you have obtained and through your smoking habit," continued Boyle. "And, the longer you stop smoking, it seems the greater the reduction of the risk and it approaches that of a life-long non-smoker."

The World Health Organization reports one-third of all cancers can be prevented and one-third of all cancers are curable, if detected early. It says radiation is an effective and cost-effective treatment for up to 50 percent of cancer patients.

And, that is where the nuclear watch dog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency comes in. The IAEA is involved in the Atoms for Peace Program, which among other things, supports countries in the area of radiation therapy.

However, the head of the IAEA's Program of Action for Cancer Therapy, Massoud Samiel, says there is a shortfall of more than five thousand radiotherapy machines, worldwide. And, most people in developing countries who need radiation treatment do not have access to it.

"The lack of investment in early detection and diagnosis also results in patients coming very late," said Samiel. "So, even if they have the radiotherapy machines, they cannot actually save lives because there are no screening programs. There are no early detection programs. So, patients present themselves quite late in the radiotherapy centers."

He says, at that late stage, all that can be done for the patients is to reduce their pain.

The IAEA is running pilot projects in Albania, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Vietnam and Yemen. The aim, in the next three to five years, is to help these countries build up their national cancer prevention and treatment programs.

The International Union against Cancer is involved in this program. This year, it also is launching a global campaign to create smoke-free environments for children. Executive Director Isabel Mortara says there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke.

"There are 700 million children, around the world, who regularly breathe tobacco smoke," said Mortara. "Children are exposed to serious health hazards, including low birth weight, asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, etc. There's new research which also shows that children who grow up in smoking homes are twice as likely to smoke themselves."

Mortara says many people, including doctors and nurses, are ignorant about the hazards of passive smoking. She says they and policy makers must be educated about the threat, so they can take the actions needed to dramatically reduce the expected number of cancer-related deaths in the world.