SAO PAULO - Latin America faces a cancer epidemic unless governments act quickly to improve health care systems and treat the poor, scientists said.
The researchers pointed to around 13 deaths for every 22 cancer cases in the region, compared to around 13 deaths for every 37 cases in the United States and around 13 deaths for every 30 cases in Europe.
The main reason, according to the study published in the British journal The Lancet Oncology, is that too many people are diagnosed with cancer at a late stage when the disease is much harder to treat and more likely to kill.
"Researchers estimate that by 2030, 1.7 million cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Latin America and the Caribbean, with more than one million deaths from cancer predicted to occur annually," said the report launched at the Latin American Cooperative Oncology Group (LACOG) 2013 conference in Sao Paulo.
The disease currently means losses of $4 billion a year for the region, including not just the cost of treatment and medicine, but also the impact on businesses and the economy of lives prematurely cut short by cancer.
"These costs will rise substantially if governments do not take coordinated action now to arrest the growing impact of cancer in the region," the report warned.
And it noted that "many people across the region, especially those in poor, rural, or indigenous communities, have little or no access to cancer services, a problem exacerbated by low, and highly inequitable, health investment in most Latin American countries."
Another factor is that more than half (320 million people) of the Latin American population have inadequate or no health insurance, the authors said.
"Latin American countries have focused their health investment on prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, whereas spending on non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, has not kept pace," noted Paul Goss of Harvard Medical School.
"However, cancers are diseases of aging people, and researchers estimate that by 2020 more than 100 million people in Latin America will be over 60 years of age."
Goss led the team of experts, predominantly from Latin America, that produced the report. While conceding that many regional countries have managed to improve some aspects of cancer care in recent years, the study called for measures to address health inequities, rethink health infrastructure and access to drugs and medical devices, and increased government spending on health.
Governments can bring down cancer rates at relatively low cost, by encouraging people to give up smoking, avoid cooking smoke, reduce their alcohol intake and adopt healthy diets and exercise, it noted.