Asia’s remarkable growth story over the past few decades has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and transformed lives, opportunity sets and economic and political fortunes. But among its downsides is a growing cancer epidemic.
Just as Asia’s economic success is reordering global power and influence, it is also turning Asia into the battleground against disease – and the region’s healthcare infrastructure is in no shape for the fight.
In 2013 about 13 million people were diagnosed with some form of cancer, most of them in North America and Europe. By 2030, the annual load of new cases is expected to hit 30 million, and the majority will be Asians, says Dr Harpal Kumar, London-based chief executive at Cancer Research UK, who recently visited the region. Sheer numbers mean India and China account for more than half of those expected cases.
Kumar (left) is helping lead a new global initiative called the Francis Crick Institute, based in London but staffed by an international team of scientists. This initiative is in fund-raising mode but expects to open doors by the end of 2015.
Planned to be one of the largest medical research organisations in the world, it is taking a multi-disciplinary approach that brings in scientists covering all sorts of infectious diseases, as well as computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers. “The sheer scale of data requires us to use other disciplines, just like in financial markets,” Kumar says.
The group will have its work cut out – and success will benefit Asian societies.
“Cancer was once described as a disease of the rich,” Kumar says, adding this description is not really accurate, as cancer occurs in poor countries too, but as it tends to affect older people more often, other causes kill people before cancer does.
The stereotype is likely to fade because now the bulk of new cancer cases will come from emerging markets, especially Asia, due to its population size, lengthening lifetimes and high smoking rates.
Cancer comes in many forms and countries have particular types they are vulnerable to. For example, cervical cancer is pernicious in India because it is often caused by a virus, called the HPV virus.
Southern China and Hong Kong, on the other hand, throws up many cancer cases caused by the naso-phasyngeal virus, as well as liver cancer caused by hepatitis. Yet such viruses are rare in northern China or Europe.
Viruses and bacteria cause around 20% of cancers worldwide, and probably have a genetic component. “We don’t fully understand how genes and environmental factors interact,” Kumar says.
He says most countries in Asia are unprepared for rising numbers of cancer patients, and need to look at building better healthcare systems, including primary care, and basic awareness. Some types of cancer that are common in emerging markets – such as cervical cancer in India – have proven treatable in the West but it requires effective screening and available public healthcare.
In some countries, governments rely on tax revenues from cigarettes and so don’t promote anti-smoking campaigns but that must change to save lives – and the cost-benefit equation as healthcare costs mount may gradually encourage a shift.
“Tobacco is the biggest single factor” in determining a country’s rate of cancer cases and fatalities, says Kumar.