Reflections from the World Cancer Congress

CRUK and UICC’s Tobacco Control Partnership in Kenya and Uganda is launched at the World Cancer Congress

“Since the last World Cancer Congress in 2018, more than 25 million people have died from cancer. Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic caused significant disruptions to services to prevent cancer and detect and treat it early. We need to get back on track.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus neatly summarised why over 1,500 people from more than 120 countries gathered at Geneva’s International Conference Centre this October.

He was speaking at the opening of the first in-person World Cancer Congress (WCC) since before the pandemic, where the importance of global collaboration to deal with cancer was a central theme.

Across the diverse conference audience of cancer researchers, health policy professionals, government officials and cancer survivors there was a common desire: to make up for lost time.

The WCC is organised by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) every two years. It’s a policy-focussed event, with the sessions and presentations promoting knowledge sharing of how best to deal with cancer, particularly in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

For us at Cancer Research UK, it’s an important forum that allows us to build connections and meet with other organisations across the world, strengthening our global role in supporting cancer prevention in LMICs.

This year, the setting of Geneva, where the WHO and multiple other international health organisations are based, made the potential for this congress particularly powerful.

It also gave a chance for us to showcase some of the work we’re doing to prevent cancer, both in the UK and in LMICs, to a diverse international audience.

National solutions for a global audience

The themes of the conference were closely aligned with our areas of focus in both our global and domestic work. Session topics included prevention and early detection, cancer research and screening, healthcare systems and policies, and tobacco control; all issues that our policy teams seek to influence.

Dozens of researchers, advocates and officials gave energising accounts of the work they’ve been doing in their countries to continue improving cancer outcomes amid the pandemic, including team members from Cancer Research UK.

Malcolm Clarke, our senior prevention manager, spoke on the first morning alongside other experts from Kenya, France and the UK, at a session on approaches for achieving positive reform in cancer prevention.

The presenters showcased their work on monitoring and reducing social inequalities in cancer, using legal advocacy to fight the tobacco industry, and understanding the commercial determinants of health.

Amongst this, the audience were shown the stages of our advocacy in the UK on obesity, from developing a campaign to influencing government policy, and reacting to changes in the political environment.

Elsewhere, New Zealand’s Associate Minister of Health, Dr Ayesha Verrall outlined her bold bill to combat tobacco use, which is expected to become law soon.

The so-called Tobacco Free-Generation strategy will end tobacco sales to anyone born from 2009 onward, to ensure future generations don’t start smoking. A similar policy was recommended by Javed Khan’s recent “Making Smoking Obsolete” review in the UK, but New Zealand should be the first government in the world to make it a legal reality.

Keeping tobacco control on the global agenda

The interest at the conference in New Zealand’s strategy was in part because it is such a bold outlier.

Innovative policies and laws like this are the exception rather than the rule, and tobacco use in LMICs,where 80% of the world’s smokers live, remains the largest preventable cause of cancer.

At a time when public health and development assistance budgets are being severely squeezed, effective collaboration amongst the global tobacco-control community is critical.

Fostering this collaboration was one of our main aims at the Conference. On the opening morning, we hosted a policy “roundtable” session with the UICC that brought together organisations and individuals working in tobacco control across multiple countries.

There were productive discussions on how these actors can reach out to other communities, particularly organisations in the International Development and Environmental sectors.

We believe this will be crucial if advocacy for greater tobacco control, specifically the effective implementation of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is to be successful in the coming years.

We have a recent track record in supporting research and advocacy in LMICs that promotes tobacco control, so were excited to launch a new partnership with UICC supporting similar work in Kenya and Uganda.

Over the next few years, our organisations will be supporting action in both countries that creates a better environment for lasting policy change on tobacco control. Kenya and Uganda have already passed legislation in this area in recent years.

Our aim is to help local organisations accelerate this momentum, grow the political will for interventions like new tobacco taxes, and ultimately reduce the preventable cancer burden in East Africa.

Reigniting action against cervical cancer

Like tobacco control, the success of our International Cancer Programme (ICP)’s advocacy on human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer in LMICs depends on resilient partnerships.

On the second day of the conference, Cervical Cancer Action for Elimination (CCAE), the network we host with the American Cancer Society (ACS), ran a Special Working Meeting on HPV vaccination.

This brought together 70 attendees from 20 countries, from civil society organisations, governments, academia and the pharmaceutical industry, to identify how global advocacy can accelerate equitable access to the HPV vaccine.

We were privileged to hear from Dr Benjamin Hounkpatin, Benin’s Minister of Health, and Carmen Auste, an activist from the Philippines with decades of experience in advocating for cancer patients in her country.

Dr Hounkpatin gave his perspective as a policymaker in a country whose HPV vaccination programme has been disrupted by COVID, emphasising how Civil Society can hold governments accountable to their commitments, and build greater awareness and acceptance of HPV vaccines.

Auste spoke from experience when emphasising how advocacy should influence both the hearts and minds of policy makers, with data being blended with emotionally powerful messages.

In a lively discussion, attendees listed vaccine costs, lack of political will and poor vaccine confidence as the main barriers that are hampering equitable access to HPV vaccines. The outlines of an advocacy approach, including stakeholders to target and messages to develop were discussed, to capitalise on the opportunities that a recent shift towards single-dose vaccines present.

CCAE will be developing these further with its partners over the coming year, to help regain the momentum for HPV vaccination that was lost in many countries during the pandemic.

Looking ahead to 2023: Cancer control and Universal Health Coverage

The next year is going to be important for global political commitments from governments on health. In September 2023, there will be High Level Meetings (HLMs) at the United Nations on both Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response, and Universal Health Coverage (UHC).

Countries will agree Political Declarations on these topics, which will lay out how they aim to achieve UHC and greater resilience to pandemics in the coming years.

This means there is a window of opportunity for those working in health, including the cancer community, to advocate for strong representation in the discussions and Political Declarations.

At WCC there were various sessions on how to ensure that cancer prevention, screening and care are part of this conversation. Big questions on how to integrate cancer care with other services, and how to finance it were tackled by a range of experts from WHO, the private sector and global civil society.

The NCD Alliance, who are coordinating advocacy from the NCD community on the UHC HLM, were also prominent at the conference, arguing that investment in NCD prevention is the bedrock of healthy societies.

In the coming months, we aim to support partners like the UICC and NCDA to make a strong case for cancer control being a pillar of Universal Health Coverage.

With over 10 million people still dying annually from cancer around the world, and three quarters of these deaths set to be in LMICs by 2030, we can’t afford for it not to be.

And based on our experiences in Geneva, there is an energised global community of researchers, policy makers and activists who are committed to making this happen.

George Hayes is a global strategy and partnerships manager at Cancer Research UK

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