The rising tide of cancer
The incidence of cancer in the Middle East is expected to increase more than in any other part of the world, doubling in the next ten years. The Western lifestyle and diet, more young people smoking, obesity, a high prevalence of hepatitis C infection, and industrial and agricultural pollution, have all been linked as contributing factors to this worrying trend.
To effectively tackle cancer will require a multifaceted approach that deals with cancer prevention, access to treatment, and the kind of research that can lead to a better understanding of the disease and improved treatments. But it also requires political reform in order for countries to accurately record what is actually going on in the region.
One particular challenge is the issue of cancer screening programmes for early detection. For instance, over the past five years the number of people living with cancer in Algeria has increased by 50%. Yet only 30% of those patients have early stage cancer, the rest only see a physician when it’s often too late for treatment.
Likewise, in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Sudan, more than 65% of breast cancer cases are detected at advanced stages, by which time the patient is usually inoperable. But even if screening programmes continue to improve, actual access to the best medications is another barrier to overcome, one that is set higher in North African countries compared to the Gulf.
While many of these are not unique to the Middle East, one additional burden facing the region is the possible prevalence of a more aggressive type of breast cancer, one that seems to strike women at a younger age.
For instance, almost 50% of breast cancer patients in the Middle East are diagnosed at a median age of 49-52, compared to a median age of 63 in Western countries.
At the heart of understanding this disease is research. Facilities like those at the Cairo Oncology Center, which has participated in numerous international clinical trials, are of critical importance. Work being conducted at Qatar’s Biomedical Research Institute, such as understanding the link between cancer and type 2 diabetes, is another example.
It will remain, however, nearly impossible to address the issue effectively until researchers know exactly what they are facing. To truly be able to reduce the incidence of the disease, Middle Eastern states need a concerted effort to produce reliable registries, increase awareness in societies and promote regional research.
Nature Middle East (published 2013)