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London Global Cancer Week 2021

30 November 2021

During London Global Cancer Week (15-19 November), the Commonwealth Secretariat hosted two events to shine a spotlight on cancer, one of the leading causes of morbidity and death in the world.

Cancer rates in the Commonwealth have risen by 35% over the last decade. Whilst the Commonwealth represents 30 percent of the world’s population, it carries 36 percent share of the global cancer incidence burden, and 39 percent of the global mortality burden.

  • 1 person in the Commonwealth is diagnosed with cancer every 10 seconds
  • 1 person in the Commonwealth dies because of cancer every 18 seconds

COVID-19 has put immeasurable strains on health systems which, in turn, has put the treatment of cancer and other health priorities at risk.

Event 1 – Achieving Equitable Solutions for the Screening and Prevention of Cervical Cancer

The first event was a fascinating discussion about cervical cancer, in particular what innovations are available for early screening and diagnosis. This is a challenge especially for lower and middle-income countries where the disease is often presented very late to health facilities. Cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). With early detection of HPV and robust vaccination programmes, cervical cancer can be eliminated in our lifetime if there is the political will to do so.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland explained how the Commonwealth Secretariat has established an International Task Force for Cervical Cancer Elimination which aims to support the Commonwealth’s cervical cancer elimination efforts and associated activities. She further elaborated on the new Commonwealth initiative, the Voluntary Information and Price Sharing Database, which was launched this year, with an aim of addressing the challenge of unequitable access of Essential Cancer Medicines, Vaccines and other Health Commodities. 

However, with the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, our ability to tackle and reduce cancers are more difficult than before. The Secretary-General explained: “The resilience of healthcare systems to withstand these significant operational pressures whilst maintaining high quality cancer care continues to be tested. With the pandemic seizing the world’s attention, leaving countries with limited resources to make tough choices, we must remain steadfast to delivering on this commitment whilst pledging to accelerate efforts to bring treatment within every citizen’s reach.”

Another speaker at the event was former Malawi President Dr Joyce Banda who spoke passionately about the need to work together to eradicate cervical cancer: “I am reassured by the Commonwealth’s commitment to work closely with the World Health Organization on this issue, as we all know: if we want to go fast, go alone; if we want to go far, we go together…. It is clear to us that we need long term investments for cervical cancer. We must prioritize research and innovation, critical avenues that will help to address the rising burden of cancers.”

Other speakers included

  • Dr Fred Bray, Branch Head, Cancer Surveillance, International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization;
  • Dr Nashwa Shaik, Technical Officer, Cervical Cancer Elimination Initiative (CCEI), World Health Organization
  • Yunus Mohamed, Executive Director, Southern African Programme on Access to Medicines and Diagnostics
  • Professor Jack Cuzick, Director, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine and Head, Centre for Cancer Prevention

Following their presentations, there was an interactive roundtable discussion about implementing effective national cervical cancer programmes. This engaging session was moderated by Dr Miriam Mutebi of Kenya who is also the chair of the Commonwealth’s International Task Force for Cervical Cancer Elimination, with participants from Australia, Guyana, Kenya and Singapore.

They shared country best practices and lessons learnt for the acceleration of Cervical Cancer Elimination strategies. They also discussed challenges hampering efforts which included myths and stigma and how governments need to do more to ensure female citizens are vaccinated as well as screened early. “This is a disease of inequality and inequity” with women and girls in less developed countries suffering the most.

Event 2 – Elevating the Needs of Young People Experiencing Cancer in the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth Secretariat’s second event aimed to identify more effective policies for the provision of cancer-care in young adults and, through bringing together young cancer survivors, explored how young people can become more involved in related decision-making.

The event brought together young cancer survivors from across the Commonwealth to shed light on their experiences. According to a study done by Wen et al (2021), in 2019, there were 1.2 million incident cases of young adults and adolescents (AYA) cancers globally (approximately 5% of the global). While this number might appear to be small compared with older patients with cancer, AYAs with cancer have a higher risk of long-term effects, such as infertility, organ dysfunction, and secondary cancers.

Youth cancer survivors across Africa, the Caribbean and Asia regions had an opportunity to share their experience during a conversation with Princess Dina Mired of Jordan, the Humanitarian and Global Advocate for Cancer Control and NCDs. Voices from these distinguished young panellists shed light on how important it is for the provision of cancer care for AYAs to be re-oriented to ensure they are youth-friendly and more importantly, to enable young people to be adequately equipped with the relevant knowledge so that they can participate in important decisions relating to their care.

Following the session with Princess Dina, a roundtable discussion consisting of policy makers and practitioners explored practical solutions. Participants underscored the need to have youth friendly health services which address the needs of AYAs including putting in place a support system, addressing psychosocial needs among AYA, and improving training, education and research focused on the care of AYA patients. The importance of factual information is key, so that young people can make informed decisions.

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