02 September 2008

Experts tackle global cancer crisis

Cancer specialists set a plan to stem the rise in deaths from cancer by 2020 and ensure that all patients suffering in the late stages of the disease can access painkillers.

Cancer specialists set a plan to stem the rise in deaths from cancer by 2020 and ensure that all patients suffering in the late stages of the disease can access painkillers.

The roadmap laid down by 63 experts and policy-makers includes more screening and early detection programs, especially in poor countries where treatment can be hard to come by.

Tobacco and alcohol consumption as well as obesity levels must be curbed for cancer rates to drop, according to the panel. Its declaration was presented at the end of a four-day World Cancer Congress hosted by the International Union against Cancer (IUCC).

Some 25 million people worldwide live with various forms of cancer and 7.9 million died of it last year.

"We know that one-third of the cancer burden could be cured if there were early detection and proper access to medical help," Mary Robinson, who chaired the panel, told reporters.

1 in 4 die of cancer in developing world
Another third of cases could be prevented through control of tobacco, pollution and other hazards, according to Robinson, a former president of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Survival rates have improved in rich countries as cancers are detected early and treated.

But lifestyle changes means cancer is affecting more people and claiming more lives in the developing world, which accounts for three out of four global deaths, according to the IUCC.

The new plan calls for all countries to upgrade their cancer control programs. Universal vaccinations for hepatitis B and human papilloma virus, which cause liver and cervical cancer respectively, should also be extended, the specialists said.

Some 4 million cancer patients lack access to opioids such as morphine to alleviate their pain, according to Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organisation.

300 000 women dying a year from cervical cancer
Addressing this, the declaration calls for "effective pain control measures" to be available to all cancer patients. "This is probably one of the most important targets because there is no excuse. Intravenous morphine is very, very cheap. So every country in the world can buy that," said Franco Cavalli, the IUCC's outgoing president.

Robinson, who serves on the board of the GAVI Alliance, which works to bring vaccines to the world's poorest areas, said that each year 500 000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 300 000 die from it.

Merck & Co.'s Gardasil and GlaxoSmithKline's Cervarix are vaccines that protect people against some strains of the cancer-causing virus, but the $360 price tag for the three shots needed for full coverage is too expensive for many.

Researchers told the talks that vaccines against cervical cancer should be more cost effective. Subsidies could be needed for developing countries, they said, suggesting a price of $10 to $25 per girl, depending on the area. – (Reuters health, September 2008)

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