‘Alarming’ number of young people in UAE, Saudi Arabia diagnosed with cancer: Study

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Young people across the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, according to a study.

Almost half of new cancer cases in both countries are of patients under the age of 50, the study revealed.


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Of new cancer cases reported in the UAE, 45.4 per cent were in the 20 to 49-year-old age group. In Saudi Arabia, about 39.4 per cent of new cases were also in the same age group.

This is more than four times higher than in countries such as Canada, the US, and the UK, where 20 to 49-year-olds make up 8 percent, 8.75 percent and 8.33 percent of new cases respectively, according to the study, ‘Higher and Increasing Incidence of Cancer between the Age of 20-49 Years in the UAE Population; A Focus Analysis of the UAE National Cancer Registry Data’.

The study found that incidences of cancer among young people in the UAE is rising year-on-year, with women more likely to be diagnosed.

Breast, colorectal, thyroid and leukemia were the top ranked cancers among all new cancer cases in both genders.

“The percentage of cancer incidence in this age group between 20-49 years of age in Saudi Arabia is 39.49 percent which is comparable to the UAE, yet these incidence rates are extremely high compared with Canada (8 percent), USA (8.75 percent), United Kingdom 8.33 (percent), China 16.15 (percent) and India 26.75 (percent),” said author Humaid al-Shamsi, an associate professor at the University of Sharjah’s College of Medicine.

“This percentage is alarming and requires further research to address the factors which lead to such extremely high incidence.”

The study analyzes data from the UAE National Cancer Registry (UAE-NCR) from the Ministry of Health and Prevention (MOHAP)from 2017 – the most recent year available - and compared figures to calculated data from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) for Saudi Arabia, Canada, United Kingdom, China, and India, looking at 2020 figures.

In his report, al-Shamsi said cancer screening is a vital component in reducing cancer mortality, yet utility and cost-effectiveness has not been evaluated fully in the younger population.

Some of the most common risk factors for cancer include smoking, sun exposure, poor diet, a lack of physical activity, or being overweight.

When looking at the UAE figures, al-Shamsi said one theory is that the majority of the population in the Emirates are younger expatriates from around the world, especially from Asia, with an estimated 65.9 percent of the UAE population aged between 25 and 54 years of age.

However, having a younger expatriate’s population is unlikely to be the rationale for such a higher incidence of cancer in the 20 to 49-year-old age group, said al-Shamsi.

He said the figures show, when looking at Emirati citizens alone and excluding expats, then 37.2 percent of new cancer cases were in the 20 to 49-year-old category. This was a similar picture in Saudi Arabia, he said.

He also suggested that early screening of colorectal and breast cancer - which start at 40 in the UAE -might be a contributory factor, but said lifestyle factors were likely to be the biggest contributor to high cancer rates.

“Increasing overall cancer incidence in younger adults is concerning, especially given that the current trends are projected to continue in future years.”

“Hereditary factors cannot explain the surge of such cases, likely environmental factors, physical activities, diet, obesity, infections and exposures occurring earlier in life, including in utero and early childhood may interplay into potential exposomal elements that increasing the incidences of cancer in this population and should also be considered when assessing cancer etiology in young adults.”

“UAE-based research to evaluate screening due to the higher incidence may be required to be addressed. A more collaborative regional and global effort is a must to address this global alarming phenomenon.”

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