Message of the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr L. G. Sambo, on the occasion of World Cancer Day 2010

Each year, on February 4, we celebrate World Cancer Day. This event provides an opportunity to draw public attention to the growing problem of Cancer. The theme for World Cancer Day 2010 is “Cancer can be prevented too”. This theme underscores the importance of protecting individuals against cancer risk factors such as tobacco use, unhealthy diet, harmful use of alcohol, physical inactivity, overweight and infections that cause cancer. On this day, WHO, together with the International Union Against Cancer, engage people in a worldwide campaign focusing on advocacy, awareness and effective prevention to promote measures to reduce the global burden of cancer.

There are many factors contributing to cancers and the disease process differs according to different sites. Tobacco is the single most important preventable cause of cancer known to man, accounting for almost 30% of cancer-related deaths worldwide. It is estimated that, globally, about 30% to 40% of all cancers are related to unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and their associated conditions of obesity. Harmful use of alcohol is another important risk factor for cancer. A host of environmental exposures, some genetic predispositions and certain infections play an important role in carcinogenesis. Nearly 20% of cancers worldwide are caused by underlying chronic infections. In the African Region, however, chronic infectious diseases account for almost 26% of cancer risk factors. As a significant number of human cancers are caused by persistent infection with viruses, bacteria or parasites, the implementation of appropriate preventive measures including vaccination and treatment can greatly reduce the burden of cancers caused by infections.

For example, the prevention of HIV can reduce Kaposi sarcoma; vaccination against hepatitis B and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) reduces liver and cervical cancers respectively and effective early treatment of Helicobacter pylori and Schistosomiasis can reduce stomach and bladder cancers.

For most cancers, preventive measures exist and are related to lifestyles such as cessation of tobacco use, avoiding excessive use of alcohol, undertaking regular physical activity, and adopting a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Effective techniques and treatment regimens have been developed for prevention, early diagnosis and adequate management.

Unfortunately, these measures are not readily accessible to everyone.

The cancer situation is worsening in several countries and many patients remain unscreened, undiagnosed and inadequately treated. According to the World Cancer Report 2008, new cancer cases are expected to rise from 13 million to nearly 27 million annually by 2030. By then, cancer will be killing some 17 million people every year. In our Region, there were an estimated 667 000 new cases of cancer in 2008 affecting 314 000 males and 353 000 females and causing 518 000 deaths involving 252 000 males and 266 000 females.

In men, the commonest cancer, and the primary cause of cancer-related deaths, is Kaposi Sarcoma, followed by liver and prostate cancers. In women, cervical and breast cancers are the most common forms of cancer and related deaths. Accurate figures are not available as many cancer cases and deaths go unreported. The cancer burden is not just a burden of pain, suffering and grief. It undermines society’s prospects for growth, prosperity and hope.

What is needed is urgent action. Millions of lives can be saved each year if old attitudes and myths about cancer are dealt with, prevention and control measures are intensified and more and more people gain access to available new technologies and effective treatments.

The World Health Organization is supporting countries in the Region to face up to the challenges of cancer by developing tools and strategies for cancer prevention and control involving implementation of priority interventions, capacity building, surveillance, monitoring and evaluation. At country level, cancer prevention and control should be put very high on the national health agenda. Adequate interventions for reducing cancer morbidity and mortality should be implemented and sustained by public policy and supported by all stakeholders. At community level, emphasis should be put on public awareness, early detection and referrals. A lot can be done with the resources currently available to save lives and alleviate suffering. It is important to get started and stay focussed.

On this occasion of World Cancer Day 2010, I call on the public to seek information about cancer and precancerous lesions including cancer-related infections, seek early screening and treatment for all cancers and cancer-causing infections and adopt healthy behaviours and lifestyles that can reduce cancer risks. Specifically, immunization of children against hepatitis B and Human Papilloma virus infections should be promoted to prevent the occurrence of those cancers later in their lives.

I also call upon international agencies and donors to increase funding and technical support for cancer prevention and control programmes as part of their development aid and assistance.

For its part, WHO will continue to work collaboratively with international and national partners to support countries in strengthening their health facilities and the capacity of their health workforce in cancer prevention and control. Member States will be supported to strengthen their health systems so that policies, legislation, strategies and community-based interventions effectively address cancer, with special focus on prevention.

I thank you.