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Perspective

Cancer treatment gap widens between rich and poor countries

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Cancer is a global issue which affects all ages and socioeconomic groups. Yet treatment options vary widely between rich and poor countries, and the gap is growing.

Over 85 percent of the 275,000 women who die every year from cervical cancer are from developing countries.

According to the latest statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), there were approximately 14 million new cases of cancer in 2012, 8.2 million cancer-related deaths and 32.6 million people living with cancer (within five years of diagnosis) globally.

More than 60 percent of the 14 million new annual cases of cancer were diagnosed in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, accounting for 70 percent of the world’s cancer deaths. Cervical cancer is just one example of the disproportionate burden borne by the developing world. The Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) – the founder of World Cancer Day – claims that over 85 percent of the 275,000 women who die every year from cervical cancer are from developing countries. Cervical cancer will be eradicated if there is widespread dissemination of the HPV vaccination, but today most of the developing world simply has no access to the vaccine.

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On our current course, the gap will only widen between the likelihood of surviving cancer in the richest and poorest countries of the world. ~ Dr. Sneh Khemka

Dr. Sneh Khemka, president of International Population Health Solutions at Aetna International, notes that cancer is not a single disease but a wide range of conditions – some of which will be eradicated in the future thanks to early intervention, continuous research and effective treatment. “Yet whether you enjoy the benefits of those efforts depends on where you live in the world,” he says.

Khemka adds that 70 percent of new cancer cases are forecast to occur in developing nations by 2025. However, he suggests three steps could help close the widening gulf in cancer treatment between the world’s wealthiest and poorest countries. “The global community needs to help poor countries widen screening programs, roll-out traditional radiotherapy machines, and encourage wider adoption of basic health insurance, such as the Indian Government’s Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojan (RSBY) program,” he explains.

“In the developed world, innovation in technology is creating new and more effective treatments,” Khemka says. “However, in the developing world, access to the right care at the right time is far less certain, which is why I refer to cancer as ‘a tale of two worlds.’ On our current course, the gap will only widen between the likelihood of surviving cancer in the richest and poorest countries of the world.”

The World Health Organization’s cancer research institute, IARC, has argued that if the $320 billion invested worldwide each year on cancer treatment and prevention was better targeted, the number of cancer deaths could be cut by half.

The World Health Organization’s cancer research institute, IARC, has argued that if the $320 billion invested worldwide each year in cancer treatment and prevention were better targeted, the number of cancer deaths could be cut by half. Four out of every five of these “avoidable deaths” would be in the developing world, according to IARC.

“What appears to be a bleak path could be changed with improved screening programs,” Khemka says. “Imagine the impact of rolling out traditional radiotherapy machines in India, China, Africa, and other territories with burgeoning populations such as Brazil.”

For perspective, Khemka notes that traditional radiotherapy machines cost less than $1 million – far cheaper than the $150 million for each of the 36 proton therapy machines in the US. Giving people in the developing world better access to radiotherapy would offer a great chance of survival, he says.

Similarly, Khemka notes that establishing basic health insurance, as the Indian Government has done with the RSBY program, offers those living below the poverty line access to hospital care and a doctor. “These sorts of solutions will change significantly the way cancer is treated around the world; it is about simple access and the financial mechanisms for people to seek care when they need it.”

Aetna International owns IHO (Indian Health Organisation), a Delhi-based business that helps almost half a million people access more affordable healthcare through its network. To read more from Khemka on the future of cancer, especially in developing countries, visit here.