Page last updated at 09:10 GMT, Thursday, 26 March 2009

Africa faces 'cancer steam train'

By Jane Dreaper
Health correspondent, BBC News

Alan Milburn
Mr Milburn is concerned about cancer in Africa

A former health secretary has told the BBC that the problem of cancer in Africa is "like a steam train coming down the track".

Alan Milburn has helped set up an organisation called AfrOx, which is trying to tackle the issue.

He compared the challenge of trying to get good cancer care in Africa to the fight in previous decades over access to HIV drugs.

He was speaking ahead of a conference focussing on cervical cancer.

African health ministers and doctors will join pharmaceutical companies and charities at Oxford University during the next two days to discuss the issue.

The delegates will issue a declaration at the end of the event, calling for global funds to help eradicate cervical cancer in developing countries.

By 2020, it's expected that 70% of new cases of cancer will be in developing countries. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer for African women.

But 32 of the 53 countries in Africa have no radiotherapy services, nor prevention or screening programmes.

There's a steam train coming down the track, in terms of cancer incidence in Africa

Alan Milburn

Vaccine programmes have begun recently in the UK and the US to protect girls against HPV, the virus which causes about 70% of cervical cancers, before they become sexually active.

A course of jabs costs up to £300 though - and many developing countries don't have the infrastructure to deliver such a vaccination programme.

Mr Milburn told BBC News: "The HPV vaccine is affordable in the US and the UK, but not in Africa. Now doesn't that ring a bell?

"People used to say that HIV treatments were unaffordable. But then the world acted and the pharmaceutical companies caved in to pressure, and eventually did the right thing.

"It took a decade to act though, and I don't want that to happen when it comes to introducing the HPV vaccine to Africa.

"There's a steam train coming down the track, in terms of cancer incidence in Africa. We know the epidemic is happening and it's going to intensify.

"If you roll back 20 or 30 years to what we knew about HIV, people knew it was coming and would have terrible consequences.

"The purpose behind AfrOx is to galvanise the global community to stop the steam train and prevent as many cancer deaths as possible."

Jade Goody

Mr Milburn, who was health secretary between 1999 and 2003, said a third of cancer deaths in Africa were preventable and another third were treatable.

He added: "And where we can't prevent or treat the cancer, we must at least provide modest forms of palliation - other than giving a paracetamol. Unfortunately all too often that's what you get as pain relief for cancer in an African country.

"That isn't good enough and we've got to change it."

Mr Milburn paid tribute to "the lasting legacy" of Jade Goody, who died last weekend from cervical cancer.

He said: "She sought to put cervical cancer under the spotlight.

"I hope we can take that message of hope and possibility into the continent where it's most needed."

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