For too many people, cancer care remains out of reach – but we can change that

A broad-based approach to tackling the problem will be key to achieving health equity, particularly in the Mena region

Tremendous progress has been made in cancer prevention and treatment in recent years. PA Wire
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Cancer is scary. It is life-changing and too often life-limiting. Innovations in cancer care have given us a better chance of diagnosing, treating and potentially “curing” the condition than ever before.

Yet, these advances are set against a disturbing backdrop of sharply rising rates in the Middle East and Africa. According to the World Health Organisation, the Eastern Mediterranean region is expected to have upwards of a million deaths a year by 2040, making it the region with the highest estimated cancer burden. Improving knowledge of, and access to, new technologies is essential to reverse this alarming increase.

We recently marked World Cancer Day, on February 4, and this month will be an opportunity to renew and amplify efforts to prevent and manage this devastating disease. This year’s theme, "Uniting our Voices and Taking Action", is timely, as no single organisation, sector or approach can conquer cancer on its own. It will take a collective effort to make meaningful progress.

Tremendous progress has been made in cancer prevention and treatment in recent years. The emergence of cutting-edge therapeutic innovations such as immunotherapy, which enables the body's immune system to target and eliminate cancer cells, and precision medicine, which utilises genomic data to personalise treatment to the unique characteristics of a patient's cancer, have significantly impacted patients and their care. Additionally, advances in early detection and screening can identify cancer in its early stages when it is most amenable to treatment.

However, for too many people these innovations are out of reach, for reasons that might include costs, inability to take time off work and simply whether their local health facilities have specialist equipment or teams available.

Less than two thirds of countries in the Middle East and Africa have developed a National Cancer Control Plan, a necessary tool to improve cancer prevention, diagnosis and care for the future. As governments acutely recognise the need to build more resilient healthcare systems in the wake of the pandemic, now is the time to unify our voices and work together to create, update and strengthen these plans for a new generation of technologies and treatments. Three key elements are needed to achieve this vision.

First, there is an urgent need for investment in early detection, including screening of those at highest risk so that the disease is caught when it is most easily managed. This is especially critical for lung cancer, which has only an 8 per cent survival rate over five years in the Middle East, due to most patients being diagnosed late. This is also true in Africa, where lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths. The Cancer Care Africa initiative, launched at Cop27 in Egypt, aims to address this need by increasing screening and diagnostic capabilities, building capacity and capability, and empowering patients to fight cancer. The initiative has ambitious goals to expand cancer screening and diagnostic services to one million more people and provide training to over 10,000 healthcare professionals across 100 oncology centres.

Second, we need to drive more innovation. As the world continues to grapple with the ongoing Covid-19 health crisis, it's more important than ever to focus on innovation in health care. In this regard, AstraZeneca’s partnership with the King Abdullah International Medical Research Centre in Saudi Arabia exemplifies how public-private collaboration can benefit people, society and planet. The new partnership encompasses research and development and innovation, including the training of Saudi scientists to use AI-driven, deep-learning approaches to identify novel genetic biomarkers of cancer risk and heritability, accelerating drug discovery in this space.

And finally, it would be unfortunate not to mention the power of prevention in tackling cancer. The high and growing prevalence of cancer in the Middle East and Africa is directly connected to the high incidence of key risk factors, such as tobacco use, physical inactivity and unhealthy diets. Educating people and primary healthcare providers about the risks and signs of cancer can help them take steps to reduce their risk of developing the disease.

This month and throughout the year, we ought to honour those fighting and those who have been lost to this dreadful disease by reaffirming our commitment to enhance equity in cancer care. By harnessing our combined energy, we can use this tipping point to drive the delivery of lifesaving technologies to more people around the world.

Published: February 09, 2023, 5:00 AM