Lowering the odds for breast cancer in the Middle East

Ronald de Jong
Chief Market Leader, Royal Philips
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Future of Global Health and Healthcare

Amazing new technology is transforming the global healthcare landscape yet when breast cancer is diagnosed in a woman in the Middle East today, chances are that her disease will be at a late stage. With early screening, diagnosis and treatment, she might hope for a positive outcome, like so many others in more developed countries. But in this part of the world, a perfect storm of cultural, societal, political and technical factors have created a crisis in women’s healthcare that puts women and their futures at greater risk.

Globally, new incidences of breast cancer have reached alarming levels, doubling from 641,000 cases in 1980 to 1.6 million in 2010. More than 400,000 women will die from the disease this year, according to a major analysis. But what is truly startling is the finding that the rise in breast cancer cases has shifted to low-income or developing countries that now represent the majority of these cases. Even more disturbing, in these countries where incidence rates are rising dramatically, women of reproductive age represent nearly 40% of all cancer deaths. In most of Europe, that number is 10%.

Why do women in the Middle East face tougher odds? For some women, a lack of healthcare awareness keeps them from understanding the importance of early screening and diagnosis. Others may have limited access to life-saving technology or it may simply be the stigma of cancer that holds women back from seeking care. Still others may worry about losing their husbands or may be shy about visiting a doctor.

With too little emphasis on preventive healthcare and not a single nationwide screening programme in the region, the results shouldn’t be surprising. In the UAE, for example, 30% of women with breast cancer who visit local hospitals are already in the third stage of the disease; in Jordan, the disease is diagnosed early, when it is most treatable, in only 52% of cases; and in Saudi Arabia, 70% of breast cancer cases are not reported until at a very late stage.

Addressing the challenge of women’s healthcare in this region must reflect cutting-edge science and long-valued local traditions. That’s where progressive thinking and innovative forms of collaboration among government, clinical leaders and the healthcare industry come in.

Dynamic public-private partnerships coupled with meaningful innovation can create a healthcare pipeline that delivers patient-centric, locally tailored solutions to address the health needs of women in the Middle East. We know this approach works.

In 2012, the Dubai Health Authority, the Ministry of Health, Sanofi and Philips Healthcare launched a year-long public awareness campaign, “Healthy Women, Healthy Families.” With a specially equipped digital mobile mammography truck, this partnership helped to raise awareness of the importance of breast cancer screening and early detection by offering free mammograms across all departments of government, women’s associations and the public.

Enhancing infrastructures and increasing availability of care in rural areas of the Middle East is another area where partnerships can make a difference.

In Egypt, 22 digital mammography systems are being used; ten of them in vans touring different governorates. More than 106,000 women have been screened so far, with more than 2,000.

These and other successful first steps in the region show that a broader, bolder, more innovative approach in the fight against breast cancer is not only possible but also urgently needed. For the women of the Middle East, “winning the race against breast cancer” is deeply personal. For leaders in both the public and private sector, it ought to be a global imperative.

Author: Ronald de Jong, Executive Vice-President, Chief Market Leader and Member of the Executive Committee, Royal Philips, Netherlands.

Image: Women pose during “Pink October” campaign to raise awareness of breast cancer in Jeddah REUTERS/Susan Baaghil.

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