Some of the world´s leading cancer control specialists met at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters earlier this month to discuss strategies for fighting the growing cancer burden in Asia and the Pacific region. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be some 15 million new cancer cases a year, the majority of them in developing countries. Asia alone can expect up to 5 million cancer deaths annually. To effectively combat this trend, cancer control planning needs to be tailored to meet a country's specific requirements and resources.
The meeting was the latest in a series organized by the IAEA together with the World Health Organization (WHO) so that international cancer experts can share their experience and knowledge with the health professionals endeavoring to develop and implement cancer strategies in low and middle-income countries. It follows a meeting for the Africa region, which took place in Cairo, Egypt, a week earlier.
"We have participants here from 19 countries from the Asia and Pacific region, most of them low income, and they all have ties to the IAEA through radiation oncology," said Professor Robert Burton, the Meeting Chairman and a leading Australian cancer expert: "They are here to tell us about the cancer situation in their countries and to learn from our experiences in the developed world."
For decades the IAEA, through its Department of Technical Cooperation (TC) and Division of Human Health, has provided Member States with equipment, training and expertise to help fight cancer. More recently, its Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT), launched in 2004, has focused on collaborating with other international cancer organizations, as well as local stakeholders, to support countries´ efforts to build comprehensive cancer control plans. Currently PACT´s work is focused on six Model Demonstration Site (PMDS) countries, three of them in the Asia and Pacific region-Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Yemen.
Dr. Neelamani Paranagama, Director of Sri Lanka´s National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP), is familiar with PACT´s work. She said that Sri Lanka has a very well organized public health system, which has successfully reduced rates of infectious diseases and significantly lowered maternal and infant mortality. But now the country is experiencing an increase in the number of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), in particular cancer. "The PACT mission to Sri Lanka made certain recommendations for our country which we are trying to implement," she said. "This meeting has given us a lot of exposure to those cancer control systems that are operating very well, in addition to insights regarding what we lack and how we can improve our own available resources."
In addition to delegates from the Asia and Pacific region, 17 international cancer control experts attended the Vienna meeting. Presentations looked at various aspects of the cancer problem in low-income countries, with examination and discussion of issues such as competing health priorities, knowledge transfer, the economics of cancer, human resources and training, and the benefits of screening, as well as an overview of the PACT experience. The sessions prompted vigorous debate and animated exchanges, which participants agreed were both stimulating and productive.
"Health systems must be adapted to meet the needs of the healthy and the sick by developing comprehensive cancer control programmes that seek not only to prevent but also to detect early, cure and care for cancer patients," said Werner Burkart, IAEA Deputy Director General for Nuclear Applications, who addressed the meeting´s opening session along with the IAEA Deputy Director General for Technical Cooperation, Ana María Cetto.
Referring to the recently formalized WHO-IAEA Joint Programme on Cancer Control, Dr. Burkart, emphasized the importance of integrating efforts at the national, regional and international levels. "These partnerships are crucial if we are to have a realistic chance of fighting the cancer epidemic effectively," he said.
It is a message that was demonstrated time and again throughout the course of the meeting. Only through collaboration and the exchange of experiences and know-how, can low-resource countries get the support they need to establish cancer control strategies that work in the local setting.