WHO predicts 50 per cent jump in worldwide cancer rates by 2020
In the most comprehensive global examination of cancer to date, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today warned that annual rates could rise by 50 per cent to 15 million new cases in 2020, and it called for immediate public health action worldwide to slash tobacco consumption and promote a healthy diet – two major weapons in the fight against the disease.
Declaring tobacco the most important avoidable cancer risk, and an unhealthy diet and obesity a major factor, the World Cancer Report says action now by governments and health practitioners could prevent as many as one third of cancers worldwide.
"The World Cancer Report tells us that cancer rates are set to increase at an alarming rate globally,” said Dr. Paul Kleihues, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of WHO and issued the report. “We can make a difference by taking action today. We have the opportunity to stem this increase. This report calls on Governments, health practitioners and the general public to take urgent action. Action now can prevent one third of cancers, cure another third, and provide good, palliative care to the remaining third who need it.”
Endorsing the findings, WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland said: "The report provides a basis for public health action and assists us in our goal to reduce the morbidity and mortality from cancer, and to improve the quality of life of cancer patients and their families, everywhere in the world."
Outlining three main areas where action can make a difference, the report says tobacco remains the major preventable cause of cancer. In the 20th century, about 100 million people died worldwide from tobacco-associated diseases. Noting that a healthy lifestyle and diet can help, it says frequent consumption of fruit and vegetables and physical activity can help. Thirdly, early detection through screening, particularly for cervical and breast cancers, allows for prevention and successful cure.
The report says the predicted sharp increase from 10 million new cases globally in 2000 to 15 million in 2020 will be due to mainly steadily ageing populations in both developed and developing countries and also to current trends in smoking prevalence and the growing adoption of unhealthy lifestyles.
The report reviews and recommends a number of strategies to reduce global tobacco consumption, requiring the coordinated involvement of government and community health organizations, health care professionals and individuals. The public health treaty – the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – which WHO Member States have agreed to submit to the World Health Assembly in May, represents a powerful tool to ensure that such strategies are implemented.
WHO is also engaged in preparing a Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, under a May 2002 mandate from Member States to address the growing global burden of chronic diseases, including cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity.
The Western lifestyle is characterized by a highly caloric diet, rich in fat, refined carbohydrates and animal protein, combined with low physical activity, resulting in an overall energy imbalance, the report says. Obesity is spreading epidemically throughout the world and is an independent predictor of an increased cancer risk, particularly for carcinomas of the uterine endometrium, kidney and gall bladder.
Given the multi-faceted impact of diet on cancer, many countries should encourage consumption of locally produced vegetables, fruit and agricultural products, and avoid the adoption of Western style dietary habits, the report adds. Such actions would have health benefits beyond cancer, since other common non-communicable diseases, notably cardiovascular disease and diabetes, share the same lifestyle-related risk factors.