Cancer Surpasses Malaria as Top Public Health Threat in Africa

BIOtech Now
Jim Greenwood

Africa is known for its diverse cultures, expansive landscapes, dramatic coastlines, luscious forests and exotic wildlife. Much less is known about the continent’s rising cancer epidemic, but it’s all too real. Shockingly, 60 percent more Africans die from cancer today than from malaria.

Africa is home to several of the world’s fastest-growing economies and 16 percent of the world’s population. Many African nations have growing middle classes, and as demographics on the continent shift, the disease landscape is evolving with it. Non-communicable diseases are on the rise, and incidences of cancer in Africa have doubled in the last two decades.

BVGH mobilized oncology doctors in Cameroon to discuss strategies to address the country’s rising cancer rate.

African healthcare systems are ill equipped to handle the dramatic spike in cancer diagnoses. One in five African countries have no access to cancer treatments at all, and 80 percent of cancer tumors diagnosed in Africans aren’t discovered until they’ve spread to other organs. Without intervention, cancer deaths in Africa are expected to rise by 70 percent over the next 12 years.

As chairman of BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH) – a Seattle-based global health nonprofit – I helped launch the African Access Initiative (AAI) at BIO International Convention last June in San Diego to address this unfolding tragedy. Already Pfizer and Takeda have signed on as founding partners and made commitments to provide access to their cancer medicines in Africa.

But the magnitude of the crisis is hard to overstate:

  • With 1.2 billion people, Africa’s population is four times larger than the United States, yet we have more than six times the number of practicing physicians – or 25 times more doctors per capita.
  • Health expenditures per capita in sub-Saharan Africa equal $98 dollars – about 1 percent of what we spend per person in our country.
  • The breast cancer survival rate is 90 percent in our country, compared to 46 percent in Uganda and 12 percent in the Republic of Gambia.
  • Nearly one-third of the cancers in Africa are related to viral infections like hepatitis B and C. Consequently, cervical cancer rates are four times higher, and liver cancer rates are 50 percent higher than in the United States.
  • The National Institutes of Health projects that one million Africans a year could die from cancer by 2030.

We know lack of education, awareness and preventative care are significant barriers to early detection and successful treatments. So are limited infrastructure, oncology specialists, technological capacity and the absence of an African Cancer Registry to track treatments and outcomes.

Public-private partnerships involving industry, nonprofits, African governments and healthcare leaders from developed countries are urgently needed to build a sustainable system to address the emerging cancer crisis in Africa. That’s where BVGH seeks to fulfill a vital unmet need.

The African Access Initiative is a program driven by Africa for Africa. BVGH is working one hospital at a time to generate data on how to tackle the continent’s cancer crisis. BVGH President Jennifer Dent has visited top hospital officials and completed needs assessments in 15 African hospitals and five countries, while 16 more are underway. Traveling country by country, Dent and her team are surveying specifics on the cancer burden, national diagnostic capabilities, barriers to access, treatment practices and options to determine what drugs and therapies are most urgently needed.

Dent has met with health ministers and national cancer directors in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda. And BVGH has launched AAI’s African Consortium for Cancer Clinical Trials to generate safety and efficacy data about genetically and biologically distinct cancers affecting patient populations in Africa.

This is a part of the world where the biopharmaceutical industry can play an outsized role in improving mortality rates and quality of life for patients and their families. As AAI moves into its implementation phase this year, it will be incumbent upon the biopharma community to demonstrate corporate social responsibility and step up with contributions equal to the magnitude of the crisis our African neighbors face.

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