Health and Healthcare Systems

Africa’s cancer burden is taking its toll on women and girls: A new coalition hopes to accelerate progress

In Kenya, cervical and breast cancer are responsible for thousands of deaths every year.

In Kenya, cervical and breast cancer are responsible for thousands of deaths every year. Image: National Cancer Institute

Amira Ghouaibi
Head, Global Alliance for Women's Health, World Economic Forum Geneva
Emily Fitzgerald
Initiatives Lead, Women's Health, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Women's Health

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • Breast and cervical cancer currently constitute over half the cancer burden for women in sub-Saharan Africa, and in Kenya, they are responsible for almost a third of all the annual cancer-related deaths.
  • Cervical and breast cancer, caught early, are treatable — but because of global health disparities, early detection, diagnosis, and treatment services are lagging behind.
  • The Global Alliance for Women's Health, a World Economic Forum initiative supported by Siemens Healthineers, has launched a Cervical and Breast Cancer Coalition on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly.

Breast and cervical cancer currently constitute over half the cancer burden for women in sub-Saharan Africa.

Between 60–70% of women in African countries are diagnosed at a late stage, and just one in two women diagnosed with breast cancer in an African country will survive five years. For people in high-income countries, that figure is over 90%.

Sub-Saharan Africa bears the highest burden of cervical cancer cases and deaths in the world, with 19 of the 20 hardest-hit countries globally in this region.

Saving lives and closing this stark healthcare equity gap is essential. While effective interventions against breast and cervical cancer are available at different stages of life, barriers remain that prevent women from accessing adequate solutions and keeping low levels of screening, vaccination, and treatment.

Have you read?

Kenya, one of East Africa’s most populous countries, provides a case study on the severity of the problem.

According to the Global Cancer Observatory data for Kenya, breast cancer remains the most diagnosed cancer, with an annual incidence of 7,243 and 3,398 cancer-related deaths.

Cervical cancer — highly detectable and curable, and yet still one of the most common cancers worldwide — ranks as the country’s second-most frequent cancer among women and is Kenya’s leading cause of cancer mortality overall.

The selection of Kenya as a Coalition lighthouse country is much appreciated. I believe in the importance of this collaboration to address women's cancers through customised impact-focused interventions, in line with Kenya’s priorities and plans for the realization of universal healthcare coverage

Nakhumicha Wafula, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Health, Kenya

The Cervical and Breast Cancer Coalition

In collaboration with the Ministry of Health Kenya, a unique coalition of public and private stakeholders has convened in support of accelerating progress in breast and cervical cancer detection, treatment, and care.

Hosted by the World Economic Forum with support from Siemens Healthineers, the Global Alliance for Women’s Health launched the coalition on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly. The coalition's shared vision supports the World Health Organization’s public health goals.

The coalition is a platform to accelerate and foster unprecedented collaborations and meaningful solutions between key stakeholders uniquely positioned to expedite action. This coalition will respond to the country’s needs and challenges.

It will provide ministers of health worldwide access to an expert network of partners and resources, facilitate in-country workshops for peer-to-peer exchange and help identify gaps and challenges where it can support public health goals.

Ministries of health will also have an opportunity to showcase best practices and groundbreaking efforts for breast cancer care and cervical cancer elimination in their countries that could be replicated and scaled elsewhere.

The coalition is an initiative of the Forum’s Global Alliance for Women’s Health, a multisector platform that prioritises, protects, and promotes women’s health across three focus areas: financing, science and innovation, and agenda setting.

The Alliance seeks to unlock investment and explore different financing models to boost funding for women’s health, supports progress in women’s health innovation, and aims to ensure that innovation meets women’s diverse needs, preferences, and lifestyles.

Its overall goal is to set a new global agenda for women’s health, including more widely disseminating data that illustrates the wide-ranging societal and economic effects of women's health.

Bridging the women’s health gap and promoting healthy and long lives for women everywhere depends on political will, country-led action investments, and sustainable multisectoral partnerships. With these elements in place, we can make strides to ensure women have equal representation in all aspects of healthcare

Elisabeth Staudinger, Member, Siemens Healthineers Managing Board

Closing the women's health gap

In January 2024, the Alliance released the Closing the Women’s Health Gap: A $1 Trillion Opportunity to Improve Lives and Economies report, which laid out the health conditions that uniquely or disproportionately affect women and quantifies the health gap today and the potential economic boom of bridging it tomorrow.

Addressing shortcomings—which limit the ability of many women to engage in the workforce and earn a living for themselves and their families—could reduce the time women spend in poor health by almost two-thirds, improve the health outcomes and daily lives of over 3.9 billion people, and lead to a 1.7% increase in per capita GDP, with every $1 invested in these efforts potentially unlocking $3 in economic growth.

Eliminating cervical cancer will not be simple, but doing so will have a transformative impact on the women’s health gap globally. Investing in women’s health is one of the best investments for societies and economies. There is compelling evidence that investing in women has a multiplier effect across various cross-cutting issues.

At an individual level, women are more likely to experience financial catastrophe due to cancer, with dire consequences for their families, even if quality cancer care is available according to a recent study published in the Lancet.

While this project is initially focused on Kenya, it stands to provide an example of how multisector collaboration anywhere can be harnessed to boost women’s health and save lives. The Alliance intends to expand the coalition efforts and collaborate with other ministries and countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

While the challenge of eliminating breast and cervical cancer in sub-Saharan Africa is significant, progress is achievable through concerted efforts, strategic planning, and international cooperation.

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