VIENNA — The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has launched a plan to address a severe shortage of cancer treatment capacity in many poor countries, with an initial focus on Africa where people often die from the disease because they don’t have access to potentially life-saving nuclear medicine and radiotherapy.
Stressing that time is running out to tackle a growing global cancer crisis, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi announced the IAEA’s ‘Beams of Hope’ initiative on the eve of a summit of African Heads of State in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Of the 55 members of the African Union, more than 20 nations do not have a single radiotherapy device.
“Millions of people living in less developed countries are dying of often treatable and curable cancer. We have a moral duty to do everything we can to reverse this sad situation,” he said.
Organized on the occasion of World Cancer Day, the launch event was co-hosted by Senegalese President Macky Sall, new Chairperson of the African Union, and Didier Mazenga, Minister of Regional Integration of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, speaking on behalf of President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi. Tshilombo, the current president.
African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat addressed the event, which was also attended by Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera.
Adding further weight to the initiative, Grossi issued a joint statement with Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization (WHO), saying cancer treatment remains inaccessible in many parts of the world and that “the disparity is particularly acute” in Africa.
“Together, and with Rays of Hope giving new impetus, the IAEA and WHO remain committed to intensifying their long-standing close collaboration towards common goals, closing the gap in cancer care and accelerating progress towards achieving the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” the joint statement read.
The total number of cancer deaths worldwide is set to rise by 60% over the next two decades, to 16 million people each year, with low- and middle-income countries – in Africa and elsewhere – bearing the brunt of this tragedy. global health. with death rates far higher than those in wealthier regions.
Rays of Hope draws on the IAEA’s six decades of experience and expertise in nuclear science to diagnose and treat different types of tumours. It aims to mobilize financial resources and partners and galvanize political will to intensify the fight against a scourge that kills many people who could have been successfully treated with modern medical technology.
It will seek to promote cancer care for all by improving the availability of radiotherapy, medical imaging and nuclear medicine services which are essential to detect and cure this disease. This would not only avert countless deaths – 700,000 people succumbed to cancer in Africa alone in 2020 – but would also bring significant societal and economic benefits.
“Rays of Hope offers a way forward to address the global disparity in cancer care, with concrete projects that build or expand the required infrastructure, purchase radiation therapy equipment and train staff,” said Grossi from the IAEA to the audience of African leaders and senior government officials. officials.
“This will allow us to save many lives and support communities and economies that depend on the health of their people.”
More than 70% of cancer deaths are expected to occur in low- and middle-income countries, which still receive only 5% of global cancer spending. In Africa, cancer kills at least as many people as malaria each year.
Adding to the challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a sharp drop in nuclear medicine procedures in Africa.
“This silent pandemic receives only a negligible share of funding available elsewhere and for other diseases. This is why the IAEA’s Rays of Hope start in Africa and then move to developing countries in the rest of the world,” said Grossi. “Together we can do something important to tackle the cancer crisis in Africa and beyond.”
The stark differences in cancer survival rates between rich and poor countries underscore both the urgent need and the enormous potential to save more lives. For cervical and childhood cancers, seven out of ten patients survive in high-income countries, compared to three or fewer in Africa.
Closing gaps in imaging, treatment and quality of care could avert 2.5 million cancer deaths in Africa, according to a 2021 Lancet Oncology Commission report co-authored by the IAEA. The economic gains are equally clear: for every dollar spent on this goal, the return on investment is calculated at $21 over the average lifespan of patients, the report says.
IAEA assistance over the past decades has enabled dozens of countries to establish or strengthen safe, secure and effective radiation medicine capabilities. But more resources are needed to fill a persistent and huge shortage of necessary equipment and trained personnel in many parts of the world.
Rays of Hope will establish a coalition of partners and donors from government, the private sector and the wider international community, also working closely with the WHO. Several countries have already expressed their intention to support the initiative.
Even relatively small investments – setting up and operating a radiotherapy unit capable of treating 500 patients a year can cost $7.5 million – will make a significant difference in a country’s ability to provide adequate cancer care to its population. Half of cancer patients need radiotherapy, a ratio that increases in countries where cancer is often detected late.
In the first stage of the initiative, Grossi said implementation would begin immediately in the following seven countries: Benin, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Malawi, Kenya and Senegal. — W.A.M.