We can't beat cancer with drugs alone; prevention crucial: WHO

LONDON Mon Feb 3, 2014 10:04am EST

Sample analysis tubes are seen in a lab at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, July 15, 2013. Picture taken July 15, 2013. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Sample analysis tubes are seen in a lab at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, July 15, 2013. Picture taken July 15, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

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LONDON (Reuters) - Governments must make better use of vaccines and preventative public health policies in the fight against cancer as treatment alone cannot stem the disease, a World Health Organization (WHO) agency said on Monday.

The WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said cancer was growing "at an alarming pace" worldwide and new strategies were needed to curb the sometimes fatal and often costly disease.

"It's untenable to think we can treat our way out of the cancer problem. That alone will not be a sufficient response," Christopher Wild, IARC's director and co-editor of its World Cancer Report 2014, told reporters at a London briefing.

"More commitment to prevention and early detection is desperately needed... to complement improved treatments and address the alarming rise in the cancer burden globally."

The World Cancer Report, which is only produced roughly once every five years, involved a collaboration of around 250 scientists from more than 40 countries.

It said access to effective and relatively inexpensive cancer drugs would significantly cut death rates, even in places where health-care services are less well developed.

The spiraling costs of cancer are hurting the economies of even the richest countries and are often way beyond the reach of poorer nations. In 2010, the total annual economic cost of cancer was estimated at around $1.16 trillion.

Yet around half of all cancers could be avoided if current knowledge about cancer prevention was properly implemented, Wild told reporters.

SHARP RISE IN CASES EXPECTED

The report said that in 2012 - the latest year for which data are available - new cancer cases rose to an estimated 14 million a year, a figure expected to grow to 22 million within the next two decades.

Over the same period, cancer deaths are predicted to rise from an estimated 8.2 million a year to 13 million per year.

The data mean that at current rates, one in five men and one in six women worldwide will develop cancer before they reach 75 years old, while one in eight men and one in 12 women will die from the disease.

In 2012, the most common cancers diagnosed were lung, breast and colon or bowel cancers, while the most common causes of cancer death were lung, liver and stomach cancers.

As populations across the world are both growing and ageing, IARC said developing countries were disproportionately affected by the increasing numbers of cancers.

"Behind each one of these numbers, there's an individual and a family faced with a tragic situation," Wild said.

More than 60 percent of the world's total cases occur in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, and these regions account for about 70 percent of the world's cancer deaths, it said. The situation is made worse in poorer countries by the lack of early detection and access to treatment.

"Governments must show political commitment to progressively step up the implementation of high-quality screening and early detection programs, which are an investment rather than a cost," said Bernard Stewart, another co-editor of the report.

The experts highlighted efforts to curb rates of smoking, the use of vaccines to prevent infections that cause cervical and liver cancers and policies aimed at bringing down rates of obesity as key areas in which more should be done.

"Adequate legislation can encourage healthier behavior," said Stewart.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Gareth Jones)

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