WHO picks Canadian oncologist to lead work in developing countries

WHO appoints Canadian MD to help guide women’s cancer care in developing nations

TORONTO — A Canadian oncologist has been appointed by the World Health Organization to help create guidelines and programs to provide earlier diagnosis and treatment of cancers that are killing more women in developing countries each year.

Dr. Ophira Ginsburg, a clinician and researcher at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, takes on the new role in Geneva on Oct. 1.

Ginsburg said she’s honoured to be chosen for the new post, especially since it’s been her lifelong dream to work on programs that can improve the lives of women and girls around the world.

“I would like to play a part in guiding the World Health Organization, our partners and the countries that are asking for our advice to serve the needs of the hundreds of thousands of women who each year die unnecessarily of breast and cervical cancer,” she said in an interview.

Much of her work will involve working with a team to help build cancer-control programs for women in low- and middle-income countries, who have an elevated risk of dying from breast or cervical cancer compared to women in developed countries.

“We are delighted to have one of our very own scientists take on this prestigious new position at the WHO,” Dr. Paula Rochon, vice-president of research at Women’s College, said in a statement.

“Dr. Ginsburg will be involved in an important initiative to help build policy and programming for women’s cancers, an area that she has been passionately dedicated to through her research and advocacy work.”

Unlike Canada, most developing countries don’t have the health-care infrastructure in place to provide routine testing for early diagnosis of breast or cervical cancer. Cultural mores and stigma also prevent many women from seeking care.

In low- and middle-income countries, breast cancer is a rapidly growing problem, said Ginsburg, primarily because women are increasingly adopting a westernized diet and sedentary lifestyle that promote obesity — a major risk factor for breast cancer.

Cases of cervical cancer — mostly caused by infection with human papillomavirus, or HPV — are also rife in these countries, where routine PAP screening to pick up pre-cancerous lesions is often unavailable.

According to 2012 WHO statistics, breast and cervical cancer claimed the lives of almost 790,000 women worldwide, with the majority of deaths occurring in young women in low- and middle-income countries.

Research has shown that extreme poverty, compounded by gender inequity, often limits a woman’s ability to seek care.

In 2013, the WHO launched the Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, which aims to reduce premature death from cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases by 25 per cent by 2025. More than 90 per cent of early deaths from these diseases occur in developing countries and are largely preventable.

Ginsburg, who has led breast-cancer research projects in Bangladesh, said she also hopes to partner with international agencies working on HIV-AIDS, a disease that has ravaged parts of Africa and South Asia and compromises the prognosis of women also infected with HPV.

“If you are HIV-positive and you are infected with HPV, you’re much more likely to develop invasive cervical cancer and die from it,” she said.

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