Cancer incidence in the region on track to double by 2040, says research report

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Cancer cases in the region could almost double between 2020 and 2040 if immediate action isn’t taken to address the rising trend, according to a major report on cancer care released on Wednesday by the Swedish Institute for Health Economics (IHE), a globally-renowned healthcare research organization.

Among the specific challenges identified for the UAE in relation to the disease include low health literacy in the general population on the early signs of cancer, fears of social stigma following a cancer diagnosis, and financial and job security concerns among the country’s high number of expatriates about the implications of a such a diagnosis.

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Compiled in association with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and issued to mark this year’s World Cancer Day, IHE’s report reveals that newly diagnosed cancer cases could rise from 410,000 in 2020 to 720,000 by 2040, with population growth, an ageing society and changes in lifestyle all contributing to the disease rising faster in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) than anywhere else in the world.

IHE contributes to informed decision-making in healthcare by bridging the gap between academia, industry, and healthcare providers.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) represents the country’s leading innovative biopharmaceutical research companies, which are devoted to discovering and developing medicines that enable patients to live longer, healthier and more productive lives. Since 2000, PhRMA member companies have invested more than $1 trillion in the search for new treatments and cures, including $91.1 billion in 2020 alone.

Four key areas

Evaluating the cancer care landscape in nine countries in MEA; Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), IHE’s report takes a deep dive into four key areas of cancer control: prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment, and survivorship, along with a cross-cutting fifth element of governance.

Although IHE’s report points to cancer afflicting patients at a younger age in MEA, it also says that the region’s youthful demographic could be a ‘silver lining’ in attempts to combat the disease.

The report’s authors suggest that harnessing the potential inherent in a younger population is the key to reducing the disease burden of cancer on individuals, families and communities, as well as minimizing its financial burden on national economies.

Major risk factors

“The number of newly diagnosed cancer cases has been increasing in all MEA countries, partly related to demographic changes and unfavorable trends in major risk factors such as smoking and obesity. It means that cancer is set to become the number two cause of disease burden in the MEA countries,” said Thomas Hofmarcher, Health Economist at IHE.

Thomas Hofmarcher, Health Economist at IHE. (Supplied)
Thomas Hofmarcher, Health Economist at IHE. (Supplied)

“Cancer was the third-leading cause of death in the nine countries in the study in 2000 and had become the second-leading cause of death behind cardiovascular diseases in six of the nine in 2016,” Hofmarcher said.

“However, the MEA’s younger population could be the key to advancing efforts to create a stronger cancer care ecosystem. The region’s general demographic structure that sees a mostly constant share of the population in working age in the coming decades is conducive to building a strong economy. This demographic window of opportunity should be used to invest in cancer care, with the investment yielding health returns that reinforce the economy – a situation that results in a positive feedback loop of a healthier society and a healthier economy,” he added.

A key finding in the IHE report was the inequity of cancer care in the MEA, with a higher healthcare invest per capita being a determinant of survival rates. “We believe that there is a need for countries to invest more in their cancer care, as ultimately this will prove cost-effective from an economic perspective, not to mention reducing the disease burden for cancer patients and their families,” Hofmarcher said.

Co-producer of the study, PhRMA, drew attention to the disparities in income, education, and access to treatment as prime determinants of survival rates, also highlighting that discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, age, disability and lifestyle actively impacted the provision of high quality cancer care. The organisation, which represents innovative companies in the pharmaceutical industry, called for better data for policy-makers to make decisions and reiterated the economic argument for more investment in cancer care.

“Ironing out the inherent inequities in cancer care is essential to improve cancer outcomes across the Middle East and Africa, something that PhRMA is committed to achieving.

In addition to creating a more egalitarian cancer care ecosystem, we need to ensure that governments and health authorities are in receipt of the latest and most accurate clinical information on which to base their policies. Cancer care decisions should be evidence-based, necessitating the generation and use of local data -- something that PhRMA is striving to do by partnering with IHE on important healthcare reports such as this,” said Samir Khalil, Executive Director for PhRMA Middle East and Africa.

Samir Khalil, Executive Director for PhRMA Middle East and Africa. (Supplied)
Samir Khalil, Executive Director for PhRMA Middle East and Africa. (Supplied)

Considerable economic impact

“In addition to the health imperative for reducing the burden of cancer, the economic imperative should not be underestimated. Just as we have seen with COVID-19’s cost to the economy, cancer also has a considerable economic impact. Early death, sick leave and the forced retirement of cancer patients who would otherwise be productive economic contributors represents a significant loss to a country, as does the removal of informal caregivers from the workforce who are forced to stay home and look after family members with cancer. We hope that this IHE report will show policy makers that not investing in cancer care has wide implications for the economy,” Khalil added.

IHE’s report for the nine MEA countries aims to support a three-year campaign by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), which is being launched this year under the theme ‘Close the Care Gap.’

Recognizing that there are global inequities in cancer care, UICC’s campaign commences this World Cancer Day, with year one of the campaign titled ‘Realizing the Problem,’ emphasizing the importance of acknowledging the inequalities of cancer care around the globe as a starting point for addressing the disease comprehensively and holistically.

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