The World Economic Forum, with its mission of “improving the state of the world through public–private cooperation” is where leading international figures from politics, business and civic society meet for informal discussions about the big global threats and opportunities of the day.
Getting cancer onto the Davos 2015 agenda was therefore a milestone, for which much credit should go to Franco Cavalli, a leading medical oncologist who chairs the World Oncology Forum and is a former president of the Union for International Cancer Control.
It should have been a great opportunity to engage global decision makers in discussions that have taken place within the cancer community about developing a response to the relentless global rise in cancer incidence, which is now the biggest cause of death along with cardiovascular disease.
However, while Davos did table sessions on cancer, they were not designed to discuss the strategic policy response the cancer community is calling for, and Cavalli, who had a seat at the table, came away with mixed feelings about what had been achieved.
Framing the debate
Last September, Cavalli was invited to participate in a pre-Davos panel on the topic Cancer: the Next Global Epidemic? to see if this would be suitable for inclusion on the full agenda. Alongside him were Chris Wild, Director of the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer, Aaron Motsoaledi, the South African Health Minister, and Helmy Eltoukhy, a “technology pioneer” developing liquid cancer biopsies.
Early feedback was positive – cancer control seemed to have secured its place. However, when confirmation came at the end of December 2014, the focus had radically changed.
Any ambition for global action to support governments to sustainably expand access to early detection, treatment and care, had gone missing.
In its place were two sessions that focused on medical breakthroughs.
One of these, Cancer: Pathways to a Cure, framed the question as: “What breakthroughs in prevention and therapy offer a glimpse of a cancer-free future?
The other, titled A New Era in the Fight against Cancer, asked: “How will breakthroughs in specialized care and immunotherapy transform the future of cancer treatment?”
As Cavalli explains in the forthcoming issue of Cancer World, it proved hard to focus the discussion on what will make most difference to the 12 million people who develop cancer each year. Leading figures from research and the biomedical industry were keener to talk about their achievements, hopes and ambitions than to question the real-world impact of their work.
“It was a very difficult environment to present what we want to achieve,” said Cavalli.
There was an opportunity to discuss a possible policy response in a third session, the Globalization of Chronic Disease, but here the focus was entirely on promoting healthy environments and lifestyles, which doesn’t address the needs of people who develop cancers, many of which are not preventable.
It is interesting to contrast the technological framing of the cancer sessions, with sessions on infectious diseases, which carried titles like “Confronting the Challenge of Catastrophic Outbreaks” and “Pandemics: Whose Problem?”
The words indicate crisis, urgency, action, and a global responsibility – the responsibility world leaders previously accepted in setting up the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has transformed access to information, affordable treatment and care.
As Cavalli argues in the forthcoming article, many leading political figures want a similar coordinated global initiative to tackle cancer, but their voices are not yet heard loudly enough.
His message to Davos? “We’ll be back!”