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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 May 2007, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Africa facing major cancer blight
By Neil Bowdler
BBC Science Reporter

Breast cancer cell
The rise in cancer is a consequence of people living longer
A major conference is taking place in London to raise awareness about the cancer threat to Africa.

The meeting, which is being attended by health ministers from across the continent, will examine the need for cancer programmes across the region.

Cancer is often thought of as a disease of the western world but that is changing fast.

The World Health Organisation says that cancer kills more than HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

And the International Agency for Research on Cancer calculates annual new cases of cancer are expected to rise from 11m in 2000 to 16m in 2020, of which which some 70% will be in developing countries.

Increased incidence

Speaking before the conference began, the former British health minister Alan Milburn, who is chairing the conference, said the geography of cancer was indeed changing and that a new cancer epidemic was facing Africa.

"In Africa, literally every day, hundreds, possibly thousands of people die needlessly in pain from cancer for want of pain relief that could cost literally pennies rather than pounds.

"The basic infrastructure and resources to cope with the new health epidemic is basically not there and we have to do something about it. We know that there is a steam train that is coming down the track and we have a choice - we can wither, build some new track or we can wait for the train to hit us."

In some parts of Africa, the increased incidence of cancer is a consequence of economic development and populations that are living longer.

But in other parts, where HIV/Aids is slashing longevity, cancer rates may be rising directly as a result of the HIV/Aids epidemic with cancers such as Kaposi's sarcoma, tumours which appear under the surface of the skin or on mucous membranes, becoming increasingly common.

"HIV/Aids lowers the immunity of a patient and you know that throughout your lifetime the immunity keeps things in balance," Dr Mompati Malane, the head of clinical services in Botswana, told the BBC.

"You know you've got those bad cells that will go wrong and then they get eliminated by the immune system.

"But now with with HIV and immunity lowered, these cells are not killed that quickly and therefore it means that the the abnormal cells will multiply and cause cancer. We are seeing a lot of Karposi sarcomas which was not common in the past and this is mainly due to HIV/Aids."

Of course one of the main problems for Africa is funding for treatments.

For example, radiotherapy is only available in 21 countries in Africa.

But what the delegates were keen to stress as the conference began was that batting cancer is not just about expensive facilities.

Screening, early diagnosis and the uptake of inexpensive drugs were equally important, they said.


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