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Worldwide cancer cases could surge by 60% over next two decades

Experts say inequalities in cancer services need tackling

The number of worldwide cancer cases will rise by 60% in the next two years unless action is taken to step up cancer services in low and middle-income countries, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.

The greatest increase (an estimated 81%) in new cases will occur in low- and middle-income countries, where survival rates are currently lowest.

The WHO said this is largely because these countries have had to focus limited health resources on combating infectious diseases and improving maternal and child health, while health services are not equipped to prevent, diagnose and treat cancers.

In 2019, more than 90% of high-income countries reported that comprehensive treatment services for cancer were available in the public health system compared to less than 15% of low-income countries.

An estimated 81% of new cancer cases in the next two years
will occur in low- and middle-income countries
Source: World Health Organisation

“This is a wake-up call to all of us to tackle the unacceptable inequalities between cancer services in rich and poor countries,” said Ren Minghui, assistant director-general, universal health coverage/ communicable and non-communicable diseases. “If people have access to primary care and referral systems then cancer can be detected early, treated effectively and cured. Cancer should not be a death sentence for anyone, anywhere.”

Reports by the WHO and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) suggest at least seven million lives could be saved over the next decade by identifying the most appropriate science for each country, basing strong cancer responses on universal health coverage and mobilising different stakeholders to work together.

WHO highlights a wide range of proven interventions to prevent new cancer cases. These include controlling tobacco use (responsible for 25% of cancer deaths), vaccinating against hepatitis B to prevent liver cancer, eliminating cervical cancer by vaccinating against HPV, screening and treatment, implementing high-impact cancer management interventions that bring value for money and ensuring access to palliative care including pain relief.

Elisabete Weiderpass, director of IARC, said high-income countries have adopted prevention, early diagnosis and screening programmes, which together with better treatment have contributed to an estimated 20% reduction in the probability of premature mortality between 2000 and 2015.

In contrast, low-income countries saw a reduction of 5%.