Two UN Agencies Working Together to Ensure Safe Delivery of Cancer Treatment

By Reinhard Jacobsen

VIENNA (IDN) — The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have a long-standing collaboration to support Member States to address their cancer burdens. The two specialized agencies of the United Nations work together to help countries improve cancer control planning, ensure safe delivery of cancer treatment through a dose audit service to achieve and maintain accurate dosimetry for radiotherapy, and to provide joint guidance on important topics relating to cancer, among others.

The two organizations have supported more than 90 governments through imPACT review missions and through WHO cancer initiatives in cervical, childhood and breast cancers. impact stands for Integrated Mission (im) of the Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT).

Complementing these ongoing efforts, a new IAEA initiative, Rays of Hope, is being launched to support Member States in providing their people access to diagnosis and treatment of cancer using radiation medicine, beginning with African countries most in need.

“Together, and with Rays of Hope adding new impetus, the IAEA and WHO remain committed to upscaling their long-standing close collaboration toward common goals, closing the cancer care inequity gaps and accelerating progress toward the achievement of the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development,” says a Joint Statement issued by IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and his WHO counterpart Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on February 4.

The importance of the Joint Statement lies in the fact that the global cancer burden continues to rise, and low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are disproportionately affected in terms of cancer cases and deaths. According to the statement, by 2040, over 70% of cancer deaths are expected to occur in LMICs.

“Recommended interventions for preventing cancer and other noncommunicable diseases have not been adequately implemented, and treatment remains inaccessible in many parts of the world,” the two organizations say.

The statement points out that globally, an estimated half of people diagnosed with cancer may require radiotherapy as part of their care, yet many countries do not have a single radiotherapy machine. “The disparity is particularly acute in Africa where nearly 70% of countries reported that radiotherapy is generally not available to their populations.”

Tackling the burden of cancer, therefore, requires a multi-sectoral, multidisciplinary, and an evidence-based approach founded on universal health coverage for effective cancer prevention, early detection, diagnosis, treatment and palliation. The World Health Assembly has urged all countries to base their national response on a comprehensive strategy to guide cancer prevention and control activities.

WHO has pointed out that cancer is one of the world’s leading causes of death, and its burden is growing. In 2021, the world crossed a sobering new threshold—an estimated 20 million people were diagnosed with cancer, and 10 million died. These numbers will continue to rise in the decades ahead. And yet all cancers can be treated, and many can be prevented or cured.

Care for cancer, however, like so many other diseases, reflects the inequalities and inequities of our world. The clearest distinction is between high- and low-income countries, with comprehensive treatment reportedly available in more than 90% of high-income countries but less than 15% of low-income countries.

Similarly, the survival of children diagnosed with cancer is more than 80% in high-income countries, and less than 30% in low- and middle-income countries. And breast cancer survival five years after diagnosis now exceeds 80% in most high-income countries, compared with 66% in India and just 40% in South Africa.

Furthermore, a recent WHO survey found that cancer services are covered by a country’s largest, government health financing scheme in an estimated 37% of low- and middle-income countries, compared to at least 78% of high-income countries. This means that a cancer diagnosis has the potential to push families into poverty, particularly in lower-income countries, an effect that has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For all of these reasons, the theme for this year’s World Cancer Day on February 4 was “closing the care gap”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 February 2022]

Photo: WHO/Blink Media – Etinosa Yvonne

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