Cancer will be the world’s leading killer by 2010, edging out heart disease for the top spot, according to the latest report by the World Health Organization (WHO). Though cancer rates in the United States have just recently begun to decrease, elsewhere in the world cancer is on a steady rise. Experts cite tobacco, increasingly Western lifestyles, and inadequate medical care as the factors contributing to the cancer epidemic in developing countries. “In the U.S., we pay a lot of attention to cancer trends, and the trend has been encouraging,” says Dr. Richard Schilsky… “But we have forgotten that there is a big wide world out there. Cancer is a global problem” [TIME].
According to the WHO report, 12 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed this year and 7 million will die from the disease. The group forecast a 1 percent increase globally each year, with emerging economies such as China, Russia and India being hit the hardest [CNN]. The report also projects a 38 percent population increase in less developed countries by 2030. Taken together, that means by 2030 an estimated 20 to 26 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed annually and 13 to 17 million deaths will be cancer-related.
Many of the cancer deaths will be linked to tobacco use, which is surging in less developed countries. Tobacco killed 100 million people in the world last century and will kill a billion in the 21st century, unless changes are made, said John R. Seffrin, chief executive officer at the American Cancer Society [CNN]. In 1992, for example, China reached a smoking rate of 10 cigarettes per person per day — the peak level in the U.S. in the 1950s [TIME]. By the 1990s, about one-third of middle-age deaths in the United States were caused by cigarette smoking, offering a grim prediction of China’s situation in 2030. Other unhealthy aspects of the western lifestyle, such as fast food and decreased physical activity, are also increasingly being adopted in developing countries.
Currently, the most common cancers outside our borders are caused by chronic infections with viruses — very different from the ones that afflict us. In Africa, for example, the three most common cancers are Kaposi’s sarcoma (related to HIV infection) and liver and cervical cancer. In China, liver cancer is a huge problem [TIME]. Cancers caused by viral infections are potentially preventable: Vaccines exist for the human papilloma virus (HPV), linked to cervical cancer, and hepatitis B, linked to liver cancer, although the vaccines are not readily available in many countries. In addition to greater investment in cancer research, the WHO recommends distributing vaccines to low-income countries, international support for tobacco-control programs, and culturally sensitive risk-reduction programs.