Impact of Covid-19 on cancer care has been 'profound', says WHO

A chinese doctor looks at a CT scan of a lung cancer patient at the Jingdong Zhongmei private hospital in Yanjiao, China's Hebei Province, 2016 (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

The coronavirus pandemic has had a “profound” effect on efforts to tackle cancer worldwide, disrupting services and impacting the diagnostics and treatment needed to reduce the burden of the disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday. 

Speaking at a press briefing in Geneva ahead of World Cancer Day on Thursday, Dr André Ilbawi, a cancer specialist at the WHO, cautioned that with growing global population numbers and increases in life expectancy, cancer is expected to become more common, reaching numbers of up to 30 million new cases each year, up from the 19.3 million figure in 2020.   

He further stressed the “profound” impacts of Covid-19 on cancer control efforts, adding that some 50 per cent of governments have reported either partial or complete disruption to their cancer services because of the pandemic.

“Delays in diagnosis are common. Interruptions in therapy or abandonment have increased significantly,” he continued, stating this will likely have an impact on the cancer deaths in the upcoming years.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide, and with the pandemic, “healthcare professionals have been under great stress to deliver services and there are significant reductions in research and clinical trial enrolment,” he said.

According to the WHO official, countries “of all income levels'' had been affected. However some wealthier countries, like the Netherlands have been curbing the effects of the pandemic, with special programmes set up to accelerate access to cancer diagnosis and treatment. 

This contrasts with the greatest increase in cases and deaths located in low- and middle-income countries. This trend is attributed to late-stage diagnosis and lack of access to quality and affordable treatment. The WHO has forecast that global cancer rates could rise by 60 per cent over the next 20 years unless cancer care is ramped up in low- and middle-income countries.

In the press conference, Ilbawi was questioned on whether the Covid-19 vaccine was suitable for cancer patients, given the increased vulnerability of some. 

Noting data from ongoing clinical trials, Ilbalwi said: “We do appreciate that cancer patients are being noted in these clinical trials because evidence has shown that cancer patients are at greater risk for COVID-related morbidity and mortality because of their immuno-suppression.”

According to the WHO, breast cancer has overtaken lung cancer as the most common form of the life-threatening disease, accounting for nearly 12 per cent of new cases annually.  “For the first time, breast cancer now constitutes the most commonly occurring cancer globally,” said Ilbawi. 

Lung cancer, previously the most common type of the disease for two decades takes second place, ahead of colorectal cancer. 

Around 2.3 million new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed last year, noted Ilbawi. Pointing to obesity in women as a common risk factor in breast cancer, driving the overall numbers.

Warning against risk factors, the WHO said around one third of deaths from cancer are due to tobacco use, high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, and alcohol use.

Campaign efforts around World Cancer Day are being led by the Swiss-based NGO, the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC),  with this year’s theme ‘I Am and I Will’ calling for pledges and actions to reduce the global burden and impact of cancer.