February 4, 2014 |

Myth: diseases like cancer don’t affect low-income countries

Should noncommunicable diseases like cancer and diabetes be a focus of global health efforts?
Five women wearing headscarves printed with a red cross stand on a muddy road.
Epidemiological evidence shows the growing threat of noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer, in low-income countries. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

This week we’re debunking six myths that impede progress in global health. Today we’re taking on:

Noncommunicable diseases like cancer don’t affect low-income countries.

Mythbuster: Helen McGuire, director of noncommunicable diseases at PATH.

Most work to improve health in low-resource settings has understandably centered on serious communicable diseases, like AIDS and malaria. So it’s not surprising some people think problems such as cardiovascular disease, chronic lung diseases, diabetes, and cancer don’t affect people outside of wealthy countries. In fact, epidemiological evidence has been building for years that shows noncommunicable diseases are a serious and growing problem in poorer countries, just as they are in wealthier ones.

In these poorer countries, however, awareness is low, people do not always seek care, and when they do, health systems are not always prepared to respond. As a result, diagnosis and treatment comes much too late. The impact on individuals and families is devastating.

A heavy burden of cancer

Take cancer, for example. New statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that in 2012, more than half of all cancers occurred in less-developed regions of the world, and six out of every ten people who died from cancer lived in these regions. The new statistics reveal that breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for women in low-income countries. And almost 70 percent of the global burden of cervical cancer—which is preventable—falls on these countries, too.

We must provide prevention programs and timely services that respond to both communicable and noncommunicable diseases. At PATH, we’re stopping cervical cancer through immunization and better screening and bringing breast cancer early detection, diagnosis, treatment, and support services closer to women in their communities.We’re also leveraging our successes in communicable diseases to discover new solutions for noncommunicable diseases, for example, finding opportunities to  integrate noncommunicable diseases into existing health services.

It will take creativity and collaboration to reorient health systems to respond to communicable and noncommunicable diseases. This new focus on noncommunicable diseases in low-income countries raises hope that more comprehensive health services will be accessible, supporting people to maintain their health and productivity.

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  • Helen McGuire is the program leader of the Noncommunicable Diseases Program at PATH.