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African First Ladies Call on African Union Member States to Prioritise Fighting Cancer

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Africa’s first ladies are taking on cancer in the continent.

The African Union held a summit in Niamey, Niger, on Sunday to discuss opening up trade opportunities between its 55 member states.

The first ladies of the member states also used the summit as an opportunity to discuss how the continent can start tackling cancer.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “the burden of cancer has been on the increase over the past few decades.”

The WHO also notes that more than 20 million people globally are living with a cancer diagnosis, and more than half of all cancer cases occur in developing countries.

“It is projected that by 2020 there will be, every year, 15 million new cancer cases and 10 million cancer deaths,” it adds.

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Meanwhile, a report by the BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH) estimates that 60% more Africans die from cancer than succumb to malaria — which kills at least 395,000 people in Africa every year.

In Africa, the increase in cancer cases is linked to “ageing populations” and lifestyle habits that include harmful use of tobacco and alcohol, as well as decreasing interest in physical exercise according to the WHO.

The most common cancers in Africa include those of the breast, liver, prostate, and cervix. Now, Africa’s first ladies are calling on their nations to introduce measures that they hope will start tackling the harmful use of alcohol and tobacco.

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Speaking in Niamey, the First Lady of Burkina Faso Sika Bella Kabore, urged African governments to include cancer in future strategic planning around healthcare, and introduce higher taxes for products linked to cancer — such as tobacco and alcohol.

Cancer specialist Alain Toledano of the Rafael Institute in Paris told news agency AFP that the initiative is a great start to tackling the burden of cancer in Africa.

"Africa is rightly concerned most of all with contagious diseases," Toledano said, adding that 19 million people “will die in a year from cancer, and 70% of those in the poorest countries… So there will be millions of deaths in Africa.”

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Toledano also said that it’s important to have a holistic approach to tackling cancer in Africa, and that this goes far beyond increasing tax on harmful products. He said, for example, that there needs to be increased investment in promoting testing — which will lead to early diagnosis — and treatment facilities.

Early detection leads to better chances of effective treatment, which increases the likelihood of survival.

Even so, the WHO has described cancer treatment services “in general”, and radiotherapy facilities “in particular”, as being “very inadequate” in its key prevention and control interventions for reducing cancer burden in the WHO African region.

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The report highlights that many African countries still face economic, structural, logistical, and transport difficulties that make it challenging to provide adequate treatment services, chemotherapy, surgical, and palliative care.

This makes the first ladies’ call to action a timely and urgent one, as the number of new cancer cases is expected to rise by about 70% over the next 20 years, according to the WHO.

And yet, it adds, only one in five low- and middle-income countries have data that’s comprehensive enough to inform and drive cancer policies.