Cancer prevention in the Americas is ‘social justice’ issue, experts say

A young girl receives an HPV vaccine in São Paulo, Brazil. (Credit: PAHO/Flickr)

As the number of cancer diagnoses soars globally, health experts in the Americas are challenged to provide adequate resources for cancer prevention and treatment among the populations least able to cope with its impact.

With increasing use of tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, obesity and other factors, cancer is no longer a ‘rich-country’ disease. In the Americas, cancer remains the second-leading cause of death, claiming an estimated 1.3 million lives each year. In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, researchers have estimated a 78 percent increase in cancer mortality for men and a 74 percent increase for women by 2030.

This shift places an additional, growing burden on developing countries that are still battling infectious diseases that have been eradicated in other countries. And because there are inadequate cancer resources in the poorest countries of the Western Hemisphere, a patient’s chances of dying from cancer still depends largely on where they live.

“Cancer prevention is an issue of social justice,” said Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, professor in preventive medicine and founder of the Center for Health Equity in the Americas (CenHealth), in an interview with Humanosphere.

The cancer burden can be reduced through education, early screening and better access to language- and culture-specific information, she explained, but these resources are often scarce in the countries that most need it.

Women’s cancers, she added, should be of particular concern. Women in developing countries continue to present in later stages of disease and have fewer options for treatment than those in developed countries.

In the Western Hemisphere, El Salvador and Nicaragua are the only countries with higher rates of cancer among females, with soaring mortality rates from cervical and stomach cancers. But with the advent of the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer is now almost entirely preventable.

“Women should not be dying from preventable and controllable HPV-related cancers,” Baezconde-Garbanati said. “But many Latinas and indigenous populations in the Americas do not have access to information, medical services and distribution of medicine and treatment is uneven.”

Across the Americas, cancer also disproportionately affects racial minorities and other vulnerable populations. The cancer mortality gap in the U.S. between black and white women is still widening – particularly for breast cancer – while Native Americans have a greater risk of developing and dying of kidney cancers. Among Latin America’s indigenous, rates of cervical, stomach and gallbladder cancers are higher than the general population, though data is significantly lacking.

Most experts stress the need for more accurate cancer data so that financial resources and research are more appropriately prioritized. This and other disparities in cancer control were addressed in Panama last month in a conference led by CenHealth, which gathered health-minded experts from 13 countries of the region to develop a strategic plan to tackle ongoing and emerging issues affecting health equity in the Americas.

CenHealth told Humanosphere that the results of the summit will be published in the coming months.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com