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To Combat Cancer in Developing Countries, We Must Learn The Lessons of HIV And Malaria

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Think of disease in Africa and you maybe think of malaria. But this is not the whole picture. In Africa and across developing countries, people are living longer and their lifestyles are changing. With this shift, a different threat is emerging.

This threat comes from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), like cancer and diabetes. According to the World Cancer Report 2014 published this week, new cases of cancer are expected to rise from 14 million to 22 million over the next two decades.

Poorer countries will bear the heaviest burden. By 2020, across developing countries, more people are expected to die from cancer than from malaria, HIV and TB combined. This reflects in part the reduction in deaths from infectious disease, which is something to celebrate - but not if we now risk losing these hard fought gains. As well as the tremendous human cost, improved health is intrinsic to successful development and to creating much needed prosperity for poorer nations.

For those of us working in the healthcare field this poses a challenge. How to maintain momentum in the fight against malaria, HIV and TB and simultaneously step up our efforts against cancer within the limited resources, funds and infrastructure available?

First and foremost, we need to understand that the two are not mutually exclusive. The battle against infectious disease has taught us a lot. Building the healthcare infrastructure and capacity of countries is essential for improving prevention, identification and management of disease. Effective partnerships between governments, charities and business provide an effective model to do this.

For example, the GAVI Alliance, working with developed and developing country governments, donors such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and vaccine manufacturers including GSK, has made a huge impact on vaccination rates for children in poor countries. The same approach is now being used to increase vaccination against cancers triggered by infections - such as Hepatitis B vaccine against liver cancer and HPV vaccine against cervical cancer.

The U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) continues to support countries to scale-up HIV prevention, treatment and care services. The infrastructure this has created is now being used successfully for prevention, treatment and education around cervical and breast cancer.

With developed countries themselves struggling with NCDs and some African nations seeing positive economic growth, the kind of global funds and support available for malaria, HIV, and TB are unlikely to be available for NCDs.

Recently, I spoke at an event in Cape Town - co-hosted by the Union for International Cancer Control - where we talked about the importance of public-private partnerships to improve cancer care in Africa. I strongly believe that global business needs to be part of the solution.

We can learn from and influence each other, enhancing the way our own organisations operate, and how we work together. Just as importantly, we can share our resources, expertise and knowledge to make a contribution to health across all of the communities we work in.

For GSK this means drawing on our research expertise to discover new and better treatments for NCDs, and adapting our business model to help make these treatments more affordable and accessible for people in poor countries. Not only is this the right thing for us to do, but it also has long-term business benefit as these countries grow and develop.

Over the past few years, this has seen us cap the prices of our medicines in developing countries at no more than 25% of UK prices and commit to reinvest 20% of any profits generated in developing countries back into training healthcare workers in those countries.

We've made big changes to our business model - being more open to sharing our proprietary information and forming partnerships to help break the deadlock on research into neglected diseases like malaria, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease. A similar approach may be required if we are to truly take on NCDs.

One of the interesting questions that scientists are starting to battle with is why NCDs look different in different countries. Why does breast cancer present in young women in Africa? Why is diabetes in Asia different to diabetes in the US? How much is that due to diet or lifestyle or genes? As we understand this more research and new approaches to prevent and treatment will almost certainly be needed.

We are determined to be part of this. Not only is it the right thing to do but Africa has huge potential. Hopefully we'll learn more about these terrible diseases and how best to tackle them on the way.