Collective Efforts Can Prevent Cancer and Chronic Disease Explosion in the Americas

31 Jan 2010

On World Cancer Day, a new report on Latin America and the Caribbean calls for changes in policy and practices to make the healthy choice the easier choice

Washington, D.C., Feb. 4, 2010 (PAHO) — A new report published by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) shows that a large proportion of cancers and other chronic diseases in Latin America and the Caribbean are preventable. The report calls for better public policies, healthier practices in schools and workplaces, and behavior changes among individuals, families, and communities to halt the growing tide of these diseases that were once considered illnesses of the rich.

Physical activity - Healthy livingThe report, Regional Summary of Policy and Action for Cancer Prevention, focuses on Latin America and the Caribbean, showing how preventable cancer and other chronic diseases are based on research, and recommends policies and actions that have been shown to be effective in reducing chronic disease rates.

Chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes have traditionally been considered diseases of wealthier countries, but they are rising rapidly in the developing countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, as their populations age, become more urban, and adopt more "modern" lifestyles that mirror lifestyles in North America and other more developed regions.

The Regional Summary shows that a significant percentage of these illnesses could be prevented through healthier diets, regular physical activity, and weight management, as well as reduced tobacco consumption and healthier environments.

For example, the report shows that in Brazil, 37 percent of colorectal cancer and 28 percent of breast cancer could be prevented through better diet, physical activity, and weight control.

But such changes do not depend entirely on individuals; they require action by governments, legislators, industry, the media, workplaces, community organizations, schools, and families and individuals.

"Cancer and chronic diseases can be halted if we reduce tobacco consumption, provide people with opportunities for physical activity, and make healthy eating easier in schools, at home, and eating out. But for this to occur, collaborative action by different sectors of society is central," said PAHO Deputy Director Jon Andrus at a briefing held at PAHO headquarters to observe World Cancer Day.

The regional report, adapted from AICR's global report Policy and Action for Cancer Prevention, cites actions and policies that could effectively prevent cancers and other chronic diseases in Latin America and the Caribbean. These actions and policies address influences in four main areas:

Physical-environmental — including factors such as air and soil contamination, food production, access to and advertising of foods, city planning and transportation systems, availability of parks, and support for breastfeeding.

Economic — including the effects of globalization on food production and trade, agricultural and other government subsidies, taxes on foods and alcoholic beverages, reformulation of processed foods and beverages, labeling of food content, portion sizes, food advertising and marketing (including to children), and poverty and income inequality.

Social — including socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural influences on lifestyles, promotion and support for breastfeeding, nutrition and physical activity in schools and the workplace, legislation and regulatory systems, information and education campaigns, and social organizations as agents of positive change.

Individual/family/community — including encouragement of regular food preparation at home, family and community support for breastfeeding, levels of daily physical activity, physical and mental health as they affect healthy lifestyles, and promotion of physical activity among children and youths.
"The AICR/WCRF policy report is a roadmap," said AICR Vice President for Programs Deirdre McGinley Gieser.  "It lays out how we as a society get from where we are today—a place where it is often very difficult for individuals to make the healthy, cancer-protective choice—to a place where the choice that lowers cancer risk is also the easier choice—for everyone."

Among the report's specific recommendations are:

  • Action by governments to ensure that planning and maintenance of the built environment and open spaces facilitate physical activity and other healthy behaviors.
  • Restrictions on marketing of fast food and other processed foods to children through television and other media, and in supermarkets.
  • Support by civil society organizations for the creation of policies and programs on nutrition and physical activity, and pressure on governments and other actors to carry these out.
  • Reviews of and changes in legislation and regulatory systems to ensure that they protect public health and help prevent chronic diseases.
  • In schools, the provision of healthy food for students and staff every day, and spaces for sports and physical activity.
  • In workplaces, the use of price and other incentives to promote healthier eating as well as more physical activity and less dependence on cars for commuting.
  • For individuals, use of nutrition guides and food labels when purchasing foods and, in general, placing more priority on individual and family health when making lifestyle decisions.

PAHO was established in 1902 and is the world's oldest public health organization. It works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of the people of the Americas and serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO).


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