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Cancer in Resource-Poor Countries
In 2012, 3.5 million women died from cancer. Women are diagnosed with cervical and breast cancer at a rate of about 2 million per year, and the diseases’ outcome can largely be predicted by geography. According to The Lancet, 62 percent of deaths resulting from breast cancer occurred in low- and middle-income countries. Similarly, 87 percent of deaths due to cervical cancer occurred in resource-poor countries. Clearly, fighting cancer in resource-poor countries can be difficult.

These trends are even more concerning given that the number of cancer-related deaths among women is expected to increase to 5.5 million by 2030. Over this same time period, the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer is expected to nearly double, and the number of women diagnosed with cervical cancer is expected to increase by 25 percent.

Most global health efforts targeted toward women focus on sexual and reproductive health. However, non-communicable diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, dementia, depression and musculoskeletal disorders constitute the greatest threats to women’s health. Indeed, breast cancer and cervical cancer result in three times as many deaths as childbirth and pregnancy complications do.

Further, the global economic burden of cancer is sizable ($286 billion in 2009), primarily because it keeps people out of the workforce and can lead to premature death. Addressing the burden of cancer on women’s health could lead to increased female participation in activities that benefit countries’ economies.

Even in more developed countries, cancer screenings and appropriate treatments are not equally available to all groups. Women belonging to ethnic and cultural minorities, in particular, may not have access to essential health care.

However, cancer screening and treatment is not as costly as is often assumed. As little as $1.72 per person could provide essential medical interventions to diagnose and treat cancer effectively. This amount is about 3 percent of current health care spending in resource-poor countries.

Mammograms for breast cancer screening and radiography for cancer treatment are not often available in low- and middle-income countries. A series of articles from The Lancet recommended increasing the availability of the HPV vaccine for girls and providing cost-effective screening procedures like clinical breast examinations and cervical cancer screenings through visual inspection with acetic acid.

The articles also called for mastectomy and tamoxifen treatments to be made available to people fighting cancer in resource-poor countries by 2030. The Lancet cited Mexico and Thailand as examples of countries where universal health care coverage has improved the diagnosis, treatment and outcome of cancer in women.

Madeline Reding

Photo: Flickr