Investments made in slowing the advance of transmissible diseases across the globe have produced better than average returns in recent years. The world is well on its way to eradicating polio—India, the world’s second most populous country, has rid itself of the disease. Breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS research and clinical trials have afforded the medical community better control of the disease, whereas setbacks have even benefitted the growing knowledge base. A growing concern that is shaping the future of medical research is non-communicable disease (NCD) prevalence— namely cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released its Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases 2013-2020 at the 66th World Health Assembly detailing the strategies WHO, along with United Nations organizations, intergovernmental and nongovernmental groups, will use to reduce premature mortality of NCDs by 25 percent. The goal year for this marked shift is 2025.
From this effort spawned the Union for International Cancer Control’s creation of World Cancer Day as a way to collectively champion improving cancer outcomes through information and message sharing, and dispelling misconceptions around the world. Held every year on February 4, World Cancer Day seeks to break down barriers to accessing cancer prevention and treatment through a strategic public relations initiative. Why the emphasis on cancer?
“Most cancers are preventable by not smoking, diet and regular exercise,” said Melanie Thomas, MD, MS, Endowed Chair in Medical Oncology and Associate Director for Clinical Operations at Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) who specializes in gastrointestinal cancers. “Smoking is the number one risk factor for pancreatic cancer, and it’s linked to cervical cancer in women. It also increases the chances of developing skin cancer. There’s a multitude of reasons to quit smoking if you can.”
By 2030 the number of cancer deaths will rise to 13.2 million globally if there is no reduction in the current rates of alcohol consumption, tobacco intake and obesity. The facts are incontrovertible: lifestyle changes are a large part of the solution to better health outcomes. For women, understanding the facts is especially important.
“We’ve had the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine commercially available for five to seven years. Some of the latest data I’ve seen is that only a third of the eligible females have been vaccinated,” said William Creasman, MD, Distinguished University Professor in the Department of OB/GYN at MUSC whose specialty is gynecological cancers. “You take a look at Australia and England; they’re around 85-90 percent vaccinated.”
Preventing HPV, a sexually transmitted disease and the main cause of cervical cancers, through vaccination ultimately prevents all forms of cervical cancer. However, prevention has been stifled in recent years due to misinformation about perceived lifestyles of young women who opt for the HPV vaccine and its supposed downstream side-effects. Vaccinations for human papillomavirus (HPV) — Gardisil and Cervarix, both FDA-licensed vaccines produced by Merck & Co and GlaxoSmithKline, respectively—are effective in preventing the “targeted HPV types” prior to exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Creasman continues, “Cervical cancer, if we vaccinated everyone, can essentially be eliminated in a generation and we will no longer have to worry about it. It is, however, hard to break down barriers to getting vaccinated. ”
Cancer and the world
World Cancer Day steers the discussion beyond the barriers and misguided beliefs about cancer to fact-based explanations comprehensible for the laity. What we need to discuss; the importance of understanding the fundamental concepts of cancer; resources versus outcomes; and understanding rights as a patient are the core messages this initiative plans to relay to the world. Thomas has not only promoted these messages through her work in the U.S., but also abroad in Central and South America.
“We are used to so much technology and high expectations here in the U.S.,” remarked Thomas. “What you only have with you in a place like Honduras is yourself, your knowledge and your openness about the disease. These things are universal.”
Screening for cancers is a problem not unique to any country. But it is especially difficult gaining higher rates of screening compliance in the developing world due to a confluence of cultural norm adherence, religious beliefs, and inadequate resources. Creasman has seen facilities and infrastructure in Central America nary of the financial support you would find in the developed world.
“Costa Rica is not a third world country medically compared to Honduras—much closer to the quality in the U.S.,” said Creasman. “Yet Hondurans, for instance, still use external radiation equipment we stopped using 30-50 years ago to screen patients, and they would treat around 100 patients a day on one machine. We would never do that in the states.”
World Cancer Day recognizes the shrinking of the world and connecting of nations in the global community. Ideas, movements and innovation in recent times have rapidly spread through the power of the internet and social media. This year’s initiative is harnessing this power to dispel myths and misconceptions about cancer heard around the world. MUSC has joined the fight in spreading awareness and information by soliciting the expertise of clinicians and researchers who have practiced the world over. Join the MUSC and global community by helping us “Debunk the Myths” for World Cancer Day 2014.
This article was written in observance of World Cancer Day on February 4, 2014. For more information about World Cancer Day, please visit worldcancerday.org