Cancer: the silent scourge of the developing world

July - August, 2009 | Volume 8, Issue 4

Guest Opinion: Bjarte Reve


Photo: headshot of Bjarte Reve

Bjarte Reve

Cancer kills more Africans than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, according to World Health Organization statistics. This little-known and very disturbing fact becomes bleaker still when the standard of cancer diagnosis and treatment in most African countries is considered.

For example, every 10 minutes an African woman dies of cervical cancer. The majority of children who develop cancer in Africa receive no curative therapy, and many receive no supportive or palliative care either. Ghana, a country of more than 23 million people, has only four oncologists to diagnose and treat cancer patients.

Cancer is the silent scourge of Africa, indeed of the whole developing world. WHO estimates that if we don't take act now, more than 11 million Africans may die of cancer in 2020. Can we prevent this from happening? Absolutely.

Recently at the World Economic Forum on Africa summit in Cape Town, I was one of the initiators of a session to discuss cancer and other non-communicable diseases in Africa. Several of the speakers pointed out that raising awareness of cancer and taking preventive measures such as campaigns against tobacco smoking could save hundreds of thousands of lives in Africa.

To follow up on the Africa summit, a private-public coalition of international NGOs, cancer centers, governments and biopharma companies, as well as WHO, is being set up and will be facilitated by the World Economic Forum in Geneva. This group will develop a broad partnership to improve cancer care in Africa and especially to work on tobacco control.

Potential areas of collaboration for improving cancer care may include:

  • Establishing a center for cancer research, diagnosis and treatment
  • Health workforce training, including specialized training for local physicians, surgeons, pathologists, etc
  • Awareness-raising and prevention strategies
  • Thinking through appropriate financing mechanisms for cancers in resource-challenged environments
  • The appropriate use of technology for research, diagnosis, treatment and training

Our vision for cancer control in Africa is to provide individual countries with the technical, policy and financial support to develop programs. African governments must be the driving force behind implementing cancer control in their countries with support at every level provided by the international alliance and funds provided by governments and private donors. Only in this way can achievable and sustainable cancer care in African countries be developed.


Bjarte Reve is CEO of Oslo Cancer Cluster, Norway. He was named a Young Global Leader 2009 by the World Economic Forum, Geneva. He is on the board of AfrOx.

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