Cancer finally at the top of the world agenda

Hard work by cancer and tobacco control advocates around the world recently paid off when the UN Resolution on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), passed during the 64th session of the UN General Assembly.

The landmark Resolution, sponsored by 135 member states including the group of 53 African states, calls for the convening of a High-level meeting of the General Assembly, with the participation of Heads of State and Government, on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (NCDs)  in September 2011. The Resolution also encourages member states to discuss non-communicable diseases this year at the 2010 Millennium Development Goals Review Summit.

 A High-level meeting will help place the issue of non-communicable diseases on the global development agenda and will help the International community coalesce to reverse a social, economic and health epidemic that is claiming over 35 millions of lives each year, 80% of which are in low and middle-income countries.    

 The momentum for a balanced global health agenda that includes non-communicable diseases is growing. Recently at the World Health Assembly, NCDs were on the agenda and also discussed in several side meetings. The NCD Alliance launched a website ( to chart the progress of global non-communicable disease control efforts.

1. What is the significance of having a UN resolution passed? What does this mean for cancer?

Today, most global health programs focus on communicable diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, and on maternal and child health issues.   By comparison, non-communicable diseases ‘€“ such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes ‘€“ receive very little attention and support.   Non-communicable diseases account for more than 35 million deaths each year, about 60 percent of all deaths worldwide. Most of these deaths (28 million) occur in low and middle income countries.   The recently passed United Nations resolution on non-communicable diseases is an important step toward raising awareness about the growing burden of these diseases.   This resolution calls for a high level meeting on non-communicable diseases to be held in 2011.   This is an extremely important event that could help galvanize support for aggressive interventions to address non-communicable diseases.   It was just such a meeting that led to a global strategy on HIV/AIDS.   The resolution was sponsored by 135 member nations, which reflects broad support for establishing a more balanced approach to global health.

2. Will there be specific sessions at the 2010 Millennium Development Goal summit dedicated to cancer?

The UN resolution calls for a high level meeting on non-communicable diseases to be held in 2011.   In addition, it calls for discussion of non-communicable diseases, including cancer, during the upcoming 2010 summit on the Millennium Development Goals. The American Cancer Society and the International Union Against Cancer will be working with cancer control organisations throughout the world to ensure that cancer receives appropriate recognition in the summit agenda and activities.

3. What should enjoy more focus in Africa ‘€“ treatment or prevention? Why do you say so?

Both are important.   Effective cancer control begins with prevention and health promotion, which can eliminate up to one third or more of all cancers.   Reducing tobacco use, helping people maintain a healthy weight and promoting cancer preventing vaccines are essential building blocks of any cancer control strategy.   But we cannot stop there.   Early detection and resource appropriate treatments are also important elements of a comprehensive strategy and could help control another third of all cancers.  Finally, palliation and pain control must also be considered in any comprehensive plan and are especially important in regions where prevention and treatment options are limited.

4. What needs to happen between now and the summit in 2011?

Government leaders must make the summit a priority.   They must develop a strong agenda with tangible outcomes to better control non-communicable diseases.   At the same time, cancer survivors and cancer organisations must advocate for more attention and more funding for cancer.   Without pressure from committed advocates, the summit could come and go without a significant impact.   Finally, the media must help educate the public about the growing impact of cancer and other non-communicable diseases.   Lack of awareness has allowed these diseases to grow unchecked.   The summit provides us all with a focal point that we can rally around.

5. How important is it to have the politicians/government leaders on board?

Population based interventions ‘€“ that is, programs that reach most people in a country ‘€“ are the only viable options for effectively controlling cancer and other non-communicable diseases, and governments are the only social institutions that have the resources to implement these efforts on a broad scale.   Without the support of politicians and government leaders, we can develop all the right plans but still fail because of a lack of resources to implement our strategy. Advocates for cancer must convince their governments about the human and economic toll these diseases are taking globally.

6. What can civil society do to make sure that we maintain this momentum?

There are a number of important steps that civil society can take:

Civil society organisations should advocate for clear outcomes from the summit. The summit agenda should establish a global blueprint for addressing non-communicable diseases, building on the World Health Organisation’€™s 2008-2013 Action Plan for non-communicable diseases.

Civil society should continue to advocate for funding for essential medicines, technologies and care, strong prevention measures and health systems strengthening.

Civil society organisations should advocate for the inclusion of non-communicable diseases in future iterations of the Millennium Development Goals.

Today, our healthcare systems are distorted by outdated epidemiological assumptions, skewed funding priorities and vested interests. Civil society ‘€“ including cancer survivors ‘€“ is one of the few credible forces that can hold governments accountable for prioritising cancer and other non-communicable diseases.  

7. How important is it to have Africa fully on board and participating?

Africa is already on board and participating in the latest United Nations efforts.   All 53 African member states supported the UN Resolution calling for a non-communicable disease summit. Continued support from Africa will be essential to a successful summit.

Africa is the one region of the world where the burden of communicable diseases is still greater than that of non-communicable diseases; however, non-communicable disease rates are growing faster in Africa than anywhere else.   Africa needs to address its entire disease burden, and in doing so, it can advance all of its health priorities.   There is compelling data to show that the Millennium Development Goals could be more effectively and quickly achieved if governments and health care leaders combine efforts to fight both communicable and non-communicable diseases together.  

8. How do we convince funders that investing in health in Africa is a good investment?

Every region of the world presents unique challenges and opportunities.   Africa is no different.   The key to maintaining investor confidence is to develop good plans and to execute them effectively.   We must learn from past mistakes and be vigilant in our efforts to utilise resources efficiently to achieve the greatest possible impact.   Africa today is emerging as a global economic and political force and savvy investors and business people alike realise that an investment in Africa is an investment in the future.

9. How hard is it to mobilise funding around health issues that are not necessarily closely or directly linked to adding more desperately needed human resources or strengthening health systems?    

Today, there is little political will to create silo-ed or vertical disease programs.   Disease advocates have come to recognise that we must all work together to develop comprehensive solutions to improve overall health and well being.   The best approach to addressing non-communicable diseases is to ensure that low cost interventions are integrated into existing health systems, and one of the best ways to strengthening health systems is to ensure that they are able to address the full range of health issues facing a nation.

10. How hard is it to get governments invested in preventing and treating cancer and putting good legislation in place to ensure significant tobacco control?  

The first step to securing government support for non-communicable diseases is raising awareness about the rising human and economic cost of cancer and tobacco related disease. In doing so, we must recognise the multiple challenges policy makers face and the limited resources they have to work with.   Identifying low cost interventions that can be integrated into existing systems makes it easier for governments to support our efforts.  

Tobacco control presents a number of low cost policy options for improving the health of entire populations; however, tobacco control advocates are up against a formidable foe.   The tobacco industry has immense marketing budgets to promote their deadly products and an army of lobbyists committed to distorting the facts and misleading government officials.   Ultimately, however, we have the truth on our side.   Tobacco kills.   No amount of money will change that fact and if we persevere in our efforts to spread the truth, we will eventually be successful.


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    Health-e News is South Africa's dedicated health news service and home to OurHealth citizen journalism. Follow us on Twitter @HealtheNews

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