…calls for closing the care gap in access to quality cancer services 

Nima Wangdi 

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, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, accounting for an estimated 9.9 million deaths between 2010 and 2019. Globally, cancer incidences increased by 20 percent, alongside a 21 percent increase in cancer deaths. WHO’s South-East Asia Region’s Regional Director, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh’s message on world cancer day highlighted this status.

“WHO is calling for intensified action across the South-East Asia Region to strengthen health systems to prevent and detect cancers early, to provide prompt treatment referral, and to enhance access to palliative care,” she stated. Close the care gap in access to quality cancer services was the theme of this year’s commemoration.

In the 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 percent of premature mortality from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), which stand at around 47 million deaths every year.

In 2020, cancer of the lungs, breast, and cervix accounted for 400,000 of the total number of cancer-related deaths in the region according to WHO. Almost two-thirds of people diagnosed with cancer succumbed to the disease, highlighting the urgent need for improved early diagnosis and treatment.

Dr. Poonam’s message stated 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. “Eight countries of the Region now have in place population-based cancer registries (PCBRs), and three countries-Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka-are focus countries for addressing childhood cancer.”

Ten of the region’s 11 Member States provide tertiary care services for cancer diagnosis and treatment – including surgical and chemotherapy services- and nine also offer radiotherapy services.

She said WHO continues to support member countries to implement its new Regional Action Plan on Oral Health 2022-2030, including oral cancers, which in 2020 were among the top five most common cancers. “Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand now have in place national cancer control plans. Nepal and Maldives are in the process of finalizing it.

On cervical cancer, five Member States, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand have introduced nationwide HPV vaccination which Bangladesh, India and Timor-Leste are set to also introduce. Indonesia has introduced HPV vaccination in several provinces covering tens of millions of girls.

WHO reiterated 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.

In Bhutan, the Health Flagship Project started in 2020 as a comprehensive targeted intervention to address the burden of the most common cancers in the country – stomach, cervical and breast cancers. The project is being implemented through a separate Project Management Unit (PMU) with a budget of Nu 1.109 billion.

The flagship project is now being mainstreamed into a dedicated cancer prevention and control program under the Department of Public health, Ministry of Health.

The ministry aims to significantly lower incidences of gastric, cervical and breast cancers in the country through early detection, timely treatment and advocacy.

Endoscopy, HPV DNA testing system, and mammography are the new services the ministry started.

World Cancer Day was celebrated on February 4.