Prevention is the best medicine (Guest Blog)

In 2020, 1.2 million people died of cancer in the European Union, making it responsible for almost a quarter of all deaths and the second-leading cause of death. The challenge of cancer will increase in the coming years with Europe’s aging population, even more, if we don’t realise the value of prevention.

That’s why we need to raise awareness and focus minds on this issue: with new scientific breakthroughs, the right policies and their implementation there can be tremendous progress in saving lives from cancer.

Let there be no doubt that progress can be made. A recent study found that cancer death rates have been declining in recent decades thanks to improved prevention and care, with over 7 million lives saved between 1989 and 2023 in the EU-27 and the UK.

The researchers estimate that a further 35% reduction in cancer mortality could be achieved by 2035. As so often in medicine, prevention and early diagnosis will have a fundamental role to play in setting cancer back: lower tobacco and alcohol consumption, improved weight management, proactive screening and vaccinations will all have a role to play.

Happily, decision-makers are increasingly aware of the importance of prevention and early diagnosis in tackling this dreadful disease. Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan is a great leap in the right direction, with a strong focus on prevention, early detection and patient-centered care.

For example, the Plan aims to ensure that at least 90% of girls in the target population receive vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV) and that vaccination for boys increases significantly by 2030. This much-needed intervention drastically reduces HPV infections affecting both women and men. However, more needs to be done to ensure everyone has access to timely care and resources in their disease journey.

One area where progress can be made is clearly data, which is often missing to monitor uptake of HPV vaccination given the lack of adequate infrastructure including electronic registries and fragmentation across and within countries. The proposed European Health Data Space (EHDS) promises to vastly expand the access to health data that is the lifeblood of healthcare systems and innovation. The EHDS will facilitate the research to develop new cancer treatments, as well as the more beneficial and efficient collection of data on various types of cancer.

The better use of data will enable government and healthcare professionals to improve their prevention and vaccination strategies according to the diverse needs of different individuals and populations.

Another weak spot is the lack of access to innovative medicines, particularly the gap between the East and West of Europe. Early diagnosis can do no good if patients have to wait years to access the life-improving medicines treating their condition.

The average delay between marketing authorisation of new medicines to patient access can vary by a factor of seven across different European countries, from as little as 4 months to almost two-and-a-half years. On the prevention side, the story is unfortunately similar: HPV vaccination rates vary widely across Europe – 82% of girls up to age 15 are vaccinated in Sweden vs 2% in Bulgaria, and there are significant disparities in access to vaccination programs. Better access to innovative medicines and immunization in Eastern Europe is crucial to closing the gap in health outcomes between countries.

As European Commissioner for Health Stella Kyriakides recently told us at an AmCham EU event in Brussels, precisely on closing the East-West health gap, we can only move towards healthier societies through solidarity. Solidarity means that all of us, pharmaceutical industry, policymakers, scientists and citizens in general, all need to take responsibility and take action to ensure the right actions are taken for prevention and early diagnosis, and timely treatment.

Let’s all reflect on what each of us can do in the fight against cancer. And then let’s do it!

Cyril Schiever

President Mid-Europe Region, MSD
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