* Healthcare access lagging, treatment costs rising
* Both structural, short-term reforms needed
By Asher Levine
SAO PAULO, April 26 (Reuters) - Latin America's growing prosperity is fueling a cancer epidemic that threatens to overwhelm the region unless governments take urgent preventive action, a study published on Friday warned.
A multinational team of researchers found the current state of cancer care and prevention in Latin America incompatible with the socioeconomic changes taking place in the region, where an increasingly urban populace faces mounting lifestyle-related cancer risks.
Writing in The Lancet Oncology medical journal, researchers said Latin Americans are enjoying the benefits of growing economic prosperity but also are leading longer, more sedentary lives, accompanied by a rise in alcohol consumption, smoking and obesity. That is not only leading to an increase in cancer rates, which are expected to rise more than 33 percent in the region by 2020, but a disproportionately high number of cancer deaths.
"If corrective action is not taken this problem will become magnitudes of order bigger than it is today, it will create massive human suffering and it will threaten the economies of the region," Paul Goss, a professor at Harvard Medical School who led the study, said at an event in Sao Paulo on Friday.
While Latin Americans contract cancer at lower rates than residents of the United States, they are nearly twice as likely to die from it, the study said.
Much of that has to do with the way cancer is treated in Latin America. More than half of those in the region have little or no health insurance and relatively few public health efforts are focused on preventive medicine. That means most patients seek treatment when they are at advanced stages of the disease and often too sick to be saved.
That type of care is not only ineffective but often very expensive, draining already scarce resources from public coffers, the study found.
IMMEDIATE CHANGES NEEDED
The study recommended Latin American nations make major changes to their healthcare policies, such as dedicating more funds to public health, widening healthcare access so cancer patients can be treated earlier and developing better national cancer plans. It also envisions shifting funds away from costly end-stage cancer treatment toward palliative care.
While researchers speaking at Friday's event acknowledged the difficulty of enacting such reforms quickly, they called on governments to start with short-term solutions, such as raising taxes on tobacco and providing families with cleaner-burning wood stoves.
The total cost of cancer to Latin American countries currently is about $4 billion per year and stands to grow precipitously, according to the study.
"If we don't put these things on the agenda now, we won't be prepared to deal with this in 10 or 15 years," said Carlos Barrios, a professor at Brazil's Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande do Sul. "(At that point) the costs will be likely be exorbitant." (Editing by Todd Benson and Bill Trott)