Proposing a pragmatic approach to decrease cancer in Latin America
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Often it makes much more sense to take the most practical approach to a problem rather than the most ideal.

Such is the case in Latin America where cancer rates are rising and what may work in more developed regions of the world may not be the best path forward to curb cancer death rates south of the border and to the east in the Caribbean. 

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In late March, together with Dr. Jorge Gomez — a cancer researcher at the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health who previously spent more than two decades in leadership positions at the U.S.’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) — we both co-chaired a Concordia-hosted roundtable discussion on cancer prevention, screening, and early detection in Latin America in Miami. 

 

A panel of healthcare experts and officials from academia and government agencies from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, and the World Health Organization discussed how to reduce cancer in Latin America through preventive measures including implementation of specific cancer control plans appropriate for their respective populations.

Among our panelists were former directors of national cancer institutes in Brazil and Colombia, as well as a current senior official with Argentina’s NCI. 

It was noted that the Latin American cancer institutes were not involved in the same range of research activities as the one based stateside in Bethesda, Md., but the panelists did represent their respective governments’ various cancer research efforts as well as their own professional expertise in cancer. 

We learned about a number of commonalities among Latin American countries. In addition to the obvious common language (except for Portuguese-speaking Brazil,) we were told about a long history of health care-related collaborations, as well as the availability of universal health-care programs throughout the region.

However, not all universal health coverage is equal, with most programs limited by the resources available within each respective nation’s borders. 

Most Latin American nations do not have widespread, effective cancer screening initiatives for asymptomatic healthy individuals that would use, for example, mammograms to look for breast cancer, or colonoscopies for colorectal cancer.   

Many of the governments in these nations do not think such efforts are cost-effective since they are lacking in the equipment and expertise necessary for the screening of the population at large to be efficacious.

So according to Gomez and the other experts, the next best strategy would be to launch early-detection programs that educate citizens about potential signs of early cancers when they are most treatable, and when detected, can be treated at no cost through each nation’s universal health care system.

Four cancers were identified as good targets for early detection:  breast, colon, cervical, and gastric, with the first two being the best place to start programs. 

“We have to first seek the low-hanging fruit,” Gomez said, meaning it’s better to start doing what’s doable and can have the greatest immediate impact on public health than strive initially for strategies that aren’t practical. 

Although the panel also agreed that public-private collaborations were critical to successful implementation of public health programs, its members also acknowledged that without political will and appropriate funding, nothing substantive would occur. 

Our panel will be reconvening by teleconference soon to discuss next steps, but the reality is that good intentions and good leadership are severely limited if nations here and abroad don’t adopt meaningful global health-first policies.

Nancy Brinker is the founder of Susan G. Komen, the world's largest breast cancer charity. She has also served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary, U.S. chief of protocol and as a Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control to the U.N.'s World Health Organization. Find her on Twitter: @NancyGBrinker. Eric Rosenthal is the founder of the National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers Public Affairs Network and helped organize a number of national medicine-and-the-media conferences. Find him on Twitter: @etrosenthal.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.