Fighting a global menace: Cancer's impact in poorer nations

January 31, 2013 by Alvin Powell, Harvard University
“There is a lot of difference between what happens in low-income countries and what happens in high-income countries,” said Harvard School of Public Health student Sebastián Rodríguez Llamazares, who worked with 19 other HSPH students and Professor Felicia Knaul to plan an event on Friday marking World Cancer Day. Credit: Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

If the focus on cancer sometimes tilts toward its impact in rich, industrialized nations, statistics show that the disease is a scourge all around the world, with 95 percent of cancer deaths occurring in developing countries.

Children in poor countries aren't spared. An estimated 90 percent of children with die in the world's 25 poorest countries, compared with just 12 percent in a wealthy country such as Canada, according to statistics from the Global Task Force on Expanded Access to and Control in Developing Countries.

That glaring disparity has mobilized a group of Harvard School of Public Health (HSPS) students. The students, together with the HSPH student government, the student group Students in Latino Public Health, and the Harvard Global Equity Initiative, have put together a half-day event to raise awareness and dispel myths about cancer as a issue. The event, scheduled for Friday at the School of Public Health's Kresge Building, marks World Cancer Day on Monday. As part of their commitment, students are also gathering signatures for the World Cancer Declaration by the Union for International , which contains a list of 11 cancer-related health priorities.

"There is a lot of difference between what happens in low-income countries and what happens in high-income countries," said HSPH student Sebastián Rodríguez Llamazares.

Rodriguez said the effort calls attention to the fact that cancer is a serious problem in poor nations and that steps to prevent or treat it—routine in richer countries—should be part of the global health agenda.

Associate Professor of Medicine Felicia Knaul, who heads the Harvard Global Equity Initiative, which supports student World Cancer Day efforts, said there are few cancers whose outcomes are similar in both developed and developing countries. Pancreatic cancer is one, because it's equally deadly everywhere.

"For every other cancer that can be treated, the outcomes are very different," said Knaul, a breast cancer survivor.

There are several reasons for the disparity. People in poor countries seldom hear messages about lifestyle changes—don't smoke, eat a healthy diet, exercise—that have been shown to prevent cancer. Similarly, a vaccine that can prevent one cancer fatal to women, cervical cancer, is not widely distributed. As a result, 90 percent of cervical cancer cases are found in developing countries, Knaul said.

"It has very much become a cancer of poor women and a cancer for which poor women die," she said.

Disparities in mortality extend to highly treatable cancers, such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, fatal to just 10 percent of patients in wealthy countries but deadly 90 percent of the time in poor .

Knaul said there are several myths about global cancer that need to be exploded, including that there's nothing that can be done, that tackling the problem would cost too much, and that bigger plague the developing world. All are false, she said, adding that institutions like HSPH are key to gathering affordable, innovative solutions from around the world that can be used toward new strategies to meet the challenge.

Students are a big part of the solution, Knaul said, because they'll be designing the health solutions of tomorrow. In addition to organizing Friday's event, students who have been touched by cancer planned to participate and share their stories of surviving or supporting a family member's struggles with the disease.

Toni Kuguru, one of the student organizers, became interested in the subject when her husband, David, became ill with multiple myeloma. He was treated in the United States and is currently in remission, but the episode got Toni Kuguru thinking about the health care system in his native Kenya, where the outcome could have been different.

Kuguru said she hopes that more students will get involved after hearing about the problem and the personal testimony of those touched by cancer.

"What we're hoping for the student body is that they'll be inspired. We're hoping students understand there's lots of possibilities out there to become involved," Kuguru said.

Explore further: Affordable cancer treatments available

Related Stories

Affordable cancer treatments available

October 31, 2011
More than 2.4 million cancer deaths could be avoided each year in developing countries using prevention and treatment interventions that are affordable and that could be made widely available, according to a new report. And ...

Lifestyle changes can help prevent 30% of cancers: WHO

February 3, 2012
More than 30 percent of cancers can be prevented by lifestyle changes, the World Health Organization said Friday, on the eve of World Cancer Day.

Recommended for you

New approach attacks 'undruggable' cancers from the outside in

January 23, 2018
Cancer researchers have made great strides in developing targeted therapies that treat the specific genetic mutations underlying a patient's cancer. However, many of the most common cancer-causing genes are so central to ...

Study: Cells of three advanced cancers die with drug-like compounds that reverse chemo failure

January 23, 2018
Researchers at Southern Methodist University have discovered three drug-like compounds that successfully reverse chemotherapy failure in three of the most commonly aggressive cancers—ovarian, prostate and breast.

'Hijacker' drives cancer in some patients with high-risk neuroblastoma

January 23, 2018
Researchers have identified mechanisms that drive about 10 percent of high-risk neuroblastoma cases and have used a new approach to show how the cancer genome "hijacks" DNA that regulates other genes. The resulting insights ...

Enzyme inhibitor combined with chemotherapy delays glioblastoma growth

January 23, 2018
In animal experiments, a human-derived glioblastoma significantly regressed when treated with the combination of an experimental enzyme inhibitor and the standard glioblastoma chemotherapy drug, temozolomide.

Researchers identify a protein that keeps metastatic breast cancer cells dormant

January 23, 2018
A study headed by ICREA researcher Roger Gomis at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) has identified the genes involved in the latent asymptomatic state of breast cancer metastases. The work sheds light ...

Boosting cancer therapy with cross-dressed immune cells

January 22, 2018
Researchers at EPFL have created artificial molecules that can help the immune system to recognize and attack cancer tumors. The study is published in Nature Methods.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.