Roxanne Nelson

June 20, 2011

June 20, 2011 — Major cancer organizations are stepping up the pressure to bring attention to the global cancer crisis and call on world leaders to attend the upcoming United Nations (UN) summit.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), and the American Cancer Society have all announced new efforts to respond to the cancer epidemic occurring in low- and middle-income countries. They are urging President Obama and other world leaders to take action at the upcoming UN high-level meeting on noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), which will be held in New York City in September.

This is only the second time in its 65-year history that the UN has held such a high-level meeting to address a health topic, noted Tanja Cufer, MD, PhD, chair-elect of the ASCO International Affairs Committee. She was speaking at a press briefing during the recent ASCO annual meeting.

The first high-level UN meeting was the HIV/AIDS summit in 2001, held in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, she said. The result was "an unprecedented international response to AIDS, and ultimately led to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria."

[The UN meeting will] draw attention to what the secretary general has called a 'crisis in slow motion.'

The UN meeting in September also has the potential to be a historic event. "We have come together today to draw attention to what the secretary general has called a 'crisis in slow motion,' and there is an enormous opportunity before us to divert this crisis and to talk about how the world's leading cancer organizations are responding," explained Dr. Cufer.

An estimated 6 million people die of cancer every year, which is more than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined, Dr. Cufer pointed out.

"It is believed that the incidence of cancer will continue to increase in the next decade, with the majority of cases appearing in the low- and middle-income countries, she continued. "Furthermore, if you add cancer to other noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, that death toll rises to a combined 36 million deaths per year, according to the latest World Health Organization report."

"In other words," she noted, "an estimated 63% of all deaths worldwide are due to noncommunicable diseases."

However, "noncommunicable diseases are absent from the United Nations millennium goals, which defines the world's priorities in improving health and development," Dr. Cufer noted.

Letter to the President

Allen S. Lichter, MD, CEO of ASCO, reiterated Dr. Cufer's remarks. "The UN summit is a truly historic, probably once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to improve the lives of millions of patients around the world," he said

Dr. Lichter added that ASCO delivered a letter to the White House the morning of the press briefing, which was signed by major American medical societies representing about 300,000 doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, calling on President Obama to personally attend the UN high-level meeting on NCDs.

"We believe that the president's personal presence at the summit will send a clear and unmistakable message that this crisis deserves the world's attention and has the attention of the United States," he said.

However, Dr. Lichter noted that real progress at the summit requires not only the participation of world leaders like president Obama, but clearly stated goals and commitments. To this end, the NCD Alliance, a coalition of 4 international federations, including the UICC, has issued a Proposed Outcomes Document, containing national and global targets for NCDs.

The Proposed Outcomes Document contains 34 recommendations that the NCD Alliance believes should be the basis of the political response to NCDs. Although not ranked in order of priority because of the complexity of the NCD crisis, they are grouped under 8 headings: leadership, prevention, diagnostics and treatment, health systems, resources, research, human rights/vulnerability, and monitoring/follow-up

Dr. Lichter stated that ASCO formally endorsed the proposed outcomes, which will play a key role in deliberations at the UN summit.

Care Out of Reach

Eduardo L. Cazap, MD, PhD, UICC president and ASCO board member, who was part of the panel, pointed out that the ASCO annual meeting is an "extraordinary meeting," where the top science, the best knowledge, the best treatments, and the best diagnosis and prevention for patients is being conveyed.

"But these incredible interventions and knowledge are only available today for 10% of the world's population," said Dr. Cazap. "That means that 90% of the population is unable to have access to this knowledge."

The World Cancer Declaration is a tool to help bring the growing cancer crisis to the attention of government leaders and health policymakers, and outlines 11 targets to be achieved by 2020, Dr. Cazap explained. These include significant drops in global tobacco consumption, obesity, and alcohol intake; universal vaccination programs for hepatitis B and human papillomavirus to prevent liver and cervical cancer; dramatic reductions in the emigration of health workers with specialist cancer training; universal availability of effective pain medication; and dispelling myths and misconceptions about cancer.

The UICC is the "custodian" of the Declaration. Thus far, 229,546 signatures have been collected. The goal is to reach 1 million signatures by September, he said.

Face on the Global Crisis

John R. Seffin, PhD, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, noted how critical it is to put a "face" on the global cancer issue.

"We plan to do just that by creating a grass-roots network of survivors and caregivers to advocate along with us," he said.

This network held a meeting from June 18 to 20. Under the banner "We Can, We Should, We Will Conquer Cancer," it brought together almost 100 inspirational global cancer "ambassadors." These are individuals with a compelling story to tell about how this disease is affecting not only their lives, but the lives of their families and their country. Journalists from more than 40 nations attended to mobilize public attention around the upcoming UN high-level meeting on NCDs.

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