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Experts say 40 percent of cancers could be prevented

LONDON (Reuters) - Forty percent of the 12 million people diagnosed with cancer worldwide each year could avert the killer disease by protecting themselves against infections and changing their lifestyles, experts said Tuesday.

A report by the Geneva-based International Union Against Cancer (UICC) highlighted nine infections that can lead to cancer and urged health officials to drive home the importance of vaccines and lifestyle changes in fighting the disease.

“If there was an announcement that somebody had discovered a cure for 40 percent of the world’s cancers, there would quite justifiably be huge jubilation,” UICC president David Hill told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“But the fact is that we have, now, the knowledge to prevent 40 percent of cancers. The tragedy is, we’re not using it.”

Cervical and liver cancer, both caused by infections which can be prevented with vaccines, should be top priorities, the report said, not only in rich nations, but also in developing countries where 80 percent of global cervical cancer occur.

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide and the total number of cases globally is increasing, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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The number of global cancer deaths is projected to rise by 45 percent from 2007 to 2030 from 7.9 million to 11.5 million deaths, driven partly by a growing and aging global population.

The UICC said it wanted to focus policymakers’ attention on cancer-preventing vaccines -- like ones made by GlaxoSmithKline and Merck & Co against the human papillomavirus (HPV) which causes cervical cancer, and others against hepatitis B, which causes liver disease and cancer.

“Policymakers around the world have the opportunity and obligation to use these vaccines to save people’s lives and educate their communities toward lifestyle choices and control measures that reduce their risk of cancer,” Cary Adams, UICC’s chief executive, said in a commentary on the report.

Other cancer-causing infections include hepatitis C, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and Epstein Barr, a herpes-type virus transmitted by saliva.

The experts said the risk of developing cancer could potentially be reduced by up to 40 percent if full immunization and prevention measures were deployed and combined with simple lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, eating healthily, limiting alcohol intake and reducing sun exposure.

Hill said national health authorities should also work to dispel widespread myths about cancer, in particular a sense of fatalism felt by many people in the face of the disease.

As part of this, the UICC is launching a campaign called “Cancer can be prevented too” on World Cancer Day on February 4 to encourage people to face up to the fact that smoking, poor diet and some infections carry high cancer risks.

European cancer experts issued a report last year warning that a wave of cancer now threatens developing countries, estimating that around half of the 12.4 million new cases in 2008 occurred in low and middle income countries.

Despite the availability of so much scientific knowledge about the disease’s causes, Hill said there was great concern among health experts that “the opportunity to prevent this huge escalation of cancer may be missed.”