We live in a truly exciting time for the field of oncology. From artificial intelligence to gene editing, technological innovations have led to breakthroughs in the ways we detect, visualise, understand, and treat cancer. However, the global cancer burden is rising, estimated to reach 28.4 million people in 2040, and access to care is uneven across and within countries.
With cancer being the second leading cause of death in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region, we need to break through the barriers of access and inequality to deliver cancer care to those who need it most. But we cannot do this alone. It takes powerful partnerships to save lives.
Now, more than ever, we must work across industries and borders, with urgency and one shared goal: to build health care systems that improve equality across early diagnosis, access to care and access to treatment.
How geolocation can affect care
Inequality in cancer care is a global issue, and access to comprehensive cancer treatment can often depend on where one lives. Research shows that comprehensive cancer treatment is available in more than 90 per cent of high-income countries), but in only 15 per cent of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Unfortunately, this pattern is consistent across the spectrum of cancer statistics, made even more shocking by the fact that most of the world’s population lives in LMICS, accounting for 70 per cent of the 10 million cancer deaths yearly.
The survival of children diagnosed with cancer is also reported to be more than 80 per cent in high-income countries and less than 30 per cent in LMICs. Breast cancer five-year survival rates are over 80 per cent in most high-income countries, but that drops to just 40 per cent in South Africa. In MEA, the total cancer incidence is reported to be 1.8 million, with breast and prostate cancer being the most significant burden in the region.
Some countries, such as Jordan, provide cancer at no cost to all Jordanian citizens irrespective of insurance status. But in other countries, the challenges of underreporting the incidence rate and lack of data on mortality and survival still exist.
Championing health care to save lives
As leaders in oncology, AstraZeneca is working to address the barriers to cancer diagnosis and treatment in the MEA region. We work closely with governments and healthcare organisations to develop and build capacity to make our innovations accessible and affordable to all our patients. Only by joining forces with healthcare stakeholders can we achieve our goal of reducing the glaring gaps in equitable care — by driving early detection, diagnosis, and treatment we can transform the outcomes of cancer patients in LMICs.
So how do we do this? It starts with investing in capabilities that improve early screening, detection, and diagnosis. AstraZeneca is fostering the power of collaboration through working with the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC), Guardant Health and the Global Lung Cancer Coalition (GLCC) in the Lung Ambition Alliance (LAA) which has a primary goal to double five-year survival for patients with lung cancer by 2025.
Another crucial collaboration we have entered is with artificial intelligence (AI) solution provider Qure.ai to detect lung cancer earlier by applying algorithms to interpret radiology images. This equitable and affordable approach is active in more than 30 countries worldwide. It has screened more than 250,000 individuals through AI-based X-ray scans, a novel alternative to the gold standard CT scans, which are not broadly available in many LMICs. Over 20,000 X-rays were screened in Turkey and Lebanon in 2021-2022 alone.
We are continuing to expand this programme and committed to screening five million patients globally by 2025 as part of our WEF EDISON Alliance commitment.
AstraZeneca is also part of KINDLE, a real-world evidence study on treatment patterns in Stage 3 lung cancer. It was presented last year at the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) annual congress 2021 and published in a reputed journal this year. It studies the current treatment patterns and gaps and provides solutions for the appropriate management of lung cancer.
We also work closely with MANARA, a group of leading experts who recently issued the first-ever MEA-wide recommendations for lung cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Earlier this year, we marked the launch of Accelerating Change Together (ACT) for Cancer Care at the World Expo 2020 in Dubai, a new coalition of technology, policy, research pioneers and Government stakeholders, which seeks to drive equitable access to innovative treatments and screening programmes to detect cancer earlier. We are also proud to play a part in the Access to Oncology Medicines (ATOM) Coalition, which brings together the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world to build capacity for cancer diagnosis and treatment. It is this kind of collaboration that will allow us to truly redefine cancer care.
Partnering to improve patient access
The pandemic has taught us important lessons on how global partners can come together and work towards providing agile solutions. The glaring gaps in cancer care can only be closed by forming key partnerships with stakeholders to drive early detection, diagnosis, and treatment and eventually improve patient outcomes. It is everyone’s responsibility in the healthcare sector in the Middle East and Africa, from pharmaceutical companies, healthcare providers and the government, to improve the oncology ecosystem for all.
Viraj Rajadhyaksha is the Area Medical Director, Middle East and Africa, AstraZeneca