The Hidden Reality of Cancer in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Commentary Sexual Health

The Hidden Reality of Cancer in Latin America and the Caribbean

Mandy Van Deven

In poor countries, cervical cancer is often the most common cancer-related death among women, or even the leading cause of death for women, period.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, cancer is a rapidly growing and increasingly deadly epidemic. A new study published in The Lancet Oncology estimates that by 2030, 1.7 million cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the region, and more than a million people will die from cancer each year. Among the most life threatening—and preventable—of these diseases is cervical cancer, which claims the lives of approximately 300,000 women worldwide each year.

Cervical cancer mortality rates are seven times greater in Latin America and the Caribbean than in North America. In poor countries, many women with cervical cancer reach health services only after the disease has reached an untreatable, advanced stage, condemning them to a painful death. Unlike other non-communicable diseases, cervical cancer has an easy, effective, and inexpensive fix: providing low-cost vaccinations for human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the cause of virtually all cases of cervical cancer, and implementing screening techniques to detect cervical cancer in its early, treatable stages. The number of cervical cancer deaths is particularly alarming because the disease is entirely preventable, treatable, and thus curable.

In Bolivia, where the burden of cervical cancer is high and the health response to solve the problem is low, vaccinating adolescent girls against HPV infection can have a huge impact and save thousands of lives. In partnership with the government and a Gardasil access program, Centro de Investigación, Educación y Servicios has been able to vaccinate more than 75,000 girls at schools, health centers, and mobile clinics. But providing vaccines is only part of the comprehensive strategy that is necessary to fight this disease.

Two years ago, Elba Luz Villalobos Navarro arrived at a mobile clinic in rural El Salvador complaining of severe pain throughout her stomach and pelvis. During an exam, the staff at Asociación Demográfica Salvadoreña (ADS) learned that a doctor in a public health clinic had previously told the 62-year-old woman she displayed signs of cervical cancer. But the doctor failed to adequately explain the severity of this diagnosis or that it required treatment. Elba returned home and the cancer continued to grow—until she could no longer tolerate the pain and sought care from ADS.

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“I thank god for everything they did for me,” said Elba. “Without their help, I would have died.”

Women like Elba who live in developing nations account for more than 80 percent of all new cases of cervical cancer worldwide. In poor countries, cervical cancer is often the most common cancer-related death among women, or even the leading cause of death for women, period. The high cost of screening has proved to be a significant barrier to care for women in low-resource environments, but a recent innovation has made a big difference.

Like Bolivia, Haiti is among the countries with the highest prevalence of cervical cancer in the world. After the 2010 earthquake, Profamil pioneered the use of a low-cost visual inspection technique, which allows medical professionals to detect pre-cancerous legions with the help of a common household item: vinegar.

Visual inspection eliminates the need for laboratories and requires only a small amount of inexpensive equipment. Because it provides women with immediate test results, it is possible to both screen and treat women during the same visit, which is particularly important for women who must travel long distances in order to access health services. Visual inspection is a screening method that was developed specifically for low-resource settings, and it can drastically reduce the incidence of cervical cancer in places like Haiti.

“Early detection and timely treatment are critical to effectively eradicating this preventable disease,” said Dr. Vicente Díaz, deputy director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region. “Even one cervical cancer death is too many.”

With proven solutions within reach, we all have an obligation to change the course of this disease in Latin America and the Caribbean by building political will of governments and allocating the resources needed to end this eradicable disease. The question is no longer how but when we will ensure that comprehensive cervical cancer prevention, detection, and treatment programs are available to save the lives of all women, regardless of where they live.