On World Cancer Day, WHO called for intensified action across the South-East Asia Region to strengthen health systems in prevention and early detection of cancer. It also stressed on providing prompt treatment referrals, enhancing access to palliative care and closing the gap in access to quality cancer care services.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, accounting for an estimated 9.9 million deaths in 2020, said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia. Between 2010 and 2019, global cancer incidences increased by 26 per cent, alongside a 21 per cent increase in cancer deaths, she said. An estimated one-third of cancer deaths globally are due to tobacco use, high body mass index, alcohol use, low fruit and vegetable intake, and lack of physical activity.
"In the WHO South-East Asia Region, an estimated 2.3 million people developed cancer in 2020 and 1.4 million died of the disease. "Cancer is estimated to account for more than 20 pc of premature mortality from noncommunicable diseases in the region, which stand at around 4.7 million deaths every year," Singh said.
In 2020, cancer of the lungs, breast and cervix accounted for 4,00,000 deaths. Almost two-thirds of people diagnosed with cancer succumbed to the disease which highlights the urgent need for improved early diagnosis and treatment, she said. Since 2014, the region has accelerated action to prevent, detect, treat and control cancer with an increased focus on eliminating cervical cancer as a public health problem, the WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia said.
To accelerate progress and close the care gap, she stressed the need for introducing and expanding HPV vaccination in routine immunization programmes, covering at least 90 per cent of adolescent girls. At the same time, the region must continue to facilitate healthy lifestyles, including by not just legislating but enforcing key tobacco control measures such as health warnings and bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, as well as by raising taxes on tobacco products, Singh said.
She also emphasised increasing capacity at the primary healthcare level to detect cancers early, with a focus on intensified health workforce training, improved infrastructure and resources, and streamlined referral pathways. Primary healthcare physicians and nurses must be equipped to provide palliative and end-of-life care close to patients' homes and families, Singh said.
"Rapidly and systematically advancing the capacity of tertiary care facilities to provide comprehensive diagnostic and treatment services, which is critical to reducing cancer mortality. Interventions should be aimed at high-burden cancers with a high potential for cure. They must be accessible to all," she stated. Singh also stressed the need for including cancer services in risk pooling or pre-payment schemes and health benefit packages.
For this, national health budgets should enhance the quality and accessibility of public sector services and strengthen financial protection, with a focus on ending catastrophic health expenditure, the WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia said. "Much more work is needed to close the care gap, improve cancer survival, and accelerate towards the NCD 2025 and Sustainable Development Goal targets 2030.
"On World Cancer Day, WHO reiterates its commitment to support all countries of the Region to prevent, detect, treat and control cancer, ensuring equitable access to quality cancer services for everyone, everywhere," she added.