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World: WHO Officials Say Global Cancer Rates Could Rise

  • Julie Moffett

Despite advances in medicine, cancer rates around the world may increase dramatically over the next half-century, according to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO). RFE/RL reports from Washington on this dismal forecast and also looks at research suggesting a link between estrogen and leukemia, and the relationship between violent music and violent young people.

Washington, 9 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that global cancer rates may increase by 50 percent by 2020 if governments do not take preventive action soon.

The WHO made the announcement after the recent publication of their World Cancer Report, the most comprehensive global examination of cancer to date. The report blames the sharp increase in new cases -- from 10 million new cases globally in 2000 to 15 million in 2020 -- on aging global populations and current unhealthy trends involving smoking and poor diet.

Yet despite the dire prediction, the WHO says that governments have the power to stem this trend and prevent as many as one-third of the cancer cases if they act now.

Bernard Stewart, co-editor of the report and director of cancer services at the University of New South Wales in Australia, says that cancer rates are poised to soar at an alarming rate if nothing is done to protect public health.

"These increases may be, unfortunately, confidently predicted because of the present impact of causative factors -- the aging of the populations in many countries and the uptake of Western lifestyles in many developing countries," Stewart says.

According to Stewart, in 2000 alone, 5.3 million men and 4.7 million women developed malignant cancerous tumors resulting in the deaths of 6.2 million people. Overall, cancerous tumors were responsible for 12 percent of the nearly 56 million deaths that occur worldwide from all causes.

The good news, Stewart says, is that many cancers are preventable and nations can take simple steps to improve public health. For example, Stewart says reducing tobacco consumption remains one of the easiest and most accessible ways to lower cancer risk.

In the 20th century alone, he says, 100 million people died from tobacco-associated diseases. He adds that half of regular smokers are killed by the habit and one-quarter more die prematurely during middle age -- that is, between 35 and 69.

Stewart says the report singles out Central and Eastern Europe as areas to watch because tobacco consumption there is so high, especially among the region's youth. He says the tendency of youth in the region, and in many other parts of the world, to start smoking at younger and younger ages will predispose them to substantial cancer risks later in life.

"There is no doubt that the most preventable cause of cancer is cigarette smoking and other exposure to tobacco smoke. Clearly the approach that may be taken in respect to that causal factor is to cease smoking," Stewart says.

According to the report, regular smokers are 20 to 30 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers. In countries with a high smoking prevalence for both men and women, about 90 percent of lung cancer in both sexes is directly attributable to tobacco usage, it says.

Overall, lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide, accounting for 1.2 million new cases each year and 17.8 percent of all cancer deaths. The two other leading types of lethal cancers worldwide are in the stomach and the liver. They are responsible for 10.4 percent and 8.8 percent of global cancer deaths, respectively.

Stewart says the WHO is working hard to reduce tobacco use worldwide. The groundbreaking public health treaty, known as The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control -- which the member states have agreed to present to the World Health Assembly later this month -- represents a powerful tool to ensure that such strategies are implemented. All the countries that ratify the treaty will be legally bound to put tighter controls on tobacco consumption.

Stewart also says that in addition to reducing tobacco consumption, another important step toward lowering cancer rates is to educate people about the benefits of a healthy diet. He says many studies have proven that frequent consumption of fruits and vegetables, combined with regular physical activity, can make a dramatic difference in health and actually lower the risk of many types of cancer.

Stewart says lowering the amount of alcohol intake by people can be another significant way to reduce cancer rates. Some cancers, like liver cancer, he says, are directly impacted by alcohol and can be preventable.

Another critical factor in reducing global cancer rates, Stewart says, is early detection. He says that means governments need to focus on improving their health systems to include preventative screenings, tests, and examinations. This is especially important for cervical and breast cancers, which can be successfully cured if caught early, he adds.

Stewart says that by acting now, countries can achieve significant reductions in the world's cancer rates. Such actions, he says, will benefit not just individual nations, but all of mankind.


Lack Of Estrogen May Increase Risk Of Leukemia

A new study conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden has found that in mice, defects in key structures that produce estrogen may increase the risk of developing a common form of leukemia.

Scientists discovered that mice who lacked the gene that encodes a structure known as estrogen receptor beta developed a common type of leukemia known as chronic myeloid leukemia. The report suggests that drugs that stimulate estrogen receptors beta may someday help to treat this form of leukemia.

Researchers say they believe that the estrogen receptor may also help suppress the activity of tumors in the prostate and colon. They say drugs that stimulate this receptor may help treat more than just leukemia.


Study Says Violent Music Can Lead To Violent Behavior

A study recently released by the American Psychological Association says young adults may experience a surge in aggressive thoughts and feelings after listening to music that contains violent lyrics.

The study, which included five experiments involving more than 500 college students, found that violent songs led to more aggressive interpretations of ambiguous words and increased the relative speed with which people read aggressive versus non-aggressive words.

Researchers say their findings contradict a popular notion that listening to angry, violent music actually serves as a positive catharsis for people.