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The Hidden Reality of Cancer in Latin America and the Caribbean

RH Reality Check | 5-24-2013

In Latin America and the Caribbean, cancer is a rapidly growing and increasingly deadly epidemic. A new study published in The Lancet Oncology estimates that by 2030, 1.7 million cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the region, and more than a million people will die from cancer each year. Among the most life threatening—and preventable—of these diseases is cervical cancer, which claims the lives of approximately 300,000 women worldwide each year.

Cervical cancer mortality rates are seven times greater in Latin America and the Caribbean than in North America. In poor countries, many women with cervical cancer reach health services only after the disease has reached an untreatable, advanced stage, condemning them to a painful death. Unlike other non-communicable diseases, cervical cancer has an easy, effective, and inexpensive fix: providing low-cost vaccinations for human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the cause of virtually all cases of cervical cancer, and implementing screening techniques to detect cervical cancer in its early, treatable stages. The number of cervical cancer deaths is particularly alarming because the disease is entirely preventable, treatable, and thus curable.

In Bolivia, where the burden of cervical cancer is high and the health response to solve the problem is low, vaccinating adolescent girls against HPV infection can have a huge impact and save thousands of lives. In partnership with the government and a Gardasil access program, Centro de Investigación, Educación y Servicios has been able to vaccinate more than 75,000 girls at schools, health centers, and mobile clinics. But providing vaccines is only part of the comprehensive strategy that is necessary to fight this disease.

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