Pink Ribbon | Red Ribbon: International AIDS Conference

Wow, what a month! Following up on my previous blog post from my trip to Africa, I was fortunate to be able to participate in this year’s International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. With over 20,000 participants from all over the global health world, it was truly an amazing event and – historic – as this year marked the first time this biannual conference has been held in the United States since 1987!

Representatives from the founding Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon (PRRR) organizations joined me for a satellite session entitled: Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon Panel: Leveraging the HIV Platform for Women’s Cancers. PRRR aims to build on existing health platforms, and particularly the firm foundation laid by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to help address the growing  breast and cervical cancer burden in sub-Saharan Africa. I was joined on the panel by Ambassador Eric Goosby the current US Global AIDS Coordinator and  head of PEPFAR, Dr. Doyin Oluwole the Executive Director of PRRR, Dr. Peter Mwaba, Permanent Secretary of the Zambian  Ministry of Health,  Mr. Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS and Renuka Gadde,  VP for Global Health at BD. The panel, which was so ably moderated by Jim Glassman, Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute, provided PRRR founding partners an opportunity to engage with the HIV/AIDS community and to articulate the core vision of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon. My presentation was entitled, Building Capacity throughout the Continuum of Care: Leveraging HIV Platforms to Address Breast and Cervical Cancer in Sub-Saharan Africa.  It was great to see that the two mottos which continue to guide all Komen’s global engagements strongly resonated with the audience: ‘’Where a woman lives should not determine whether she lives and ‘Healthy women drive healthy economies’’.

I started by emphasizing the alarming epidemiological trends: Today, breast cancer is no longer a disease of women in high-income, industrialized countries but an urgent global problem. It is the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women worldwide, and while most new cases are diagnosed in developed countries, the numbers of breast cancer deaths each year are now equally split between developed and developing countries.* Recent estimates indicate that  every year, over 100,000 women die of breast and cervical cancer in sub-Saharan  Africa. But these are likely gross underestimates, as many countries in the region lack national cancer registries. More importantly, this growing burden in Africa is increasingly shifting to younger women of reproductive age.  And the health systems in many of these countries simply do not have the capacity to effectively cope with this coming epidemic. The stigma surrounding this disease, and inadequate infrastructure all exacerbate the barriers women face in accessing healthcare and make it more likely that even those few who do get screened will not get the life-savings services they need, as treatment options are very limited.

I also stressed the unique opportunity we now have for addressing these two major killers of African women in an integrated and cost-effective way. There are so many lessons and best-practices from the global AIDS community that we can apply to our joint efforts on breast and cervical cancer.

Education and awareness programs focused on reducing stigma, increasing early detection rates and creating a general awareness about the disease, as well as the treatment options that are available will be crucial to lowering mortality rates and down-staging the disease at diagnosis.

To this end,  Komen’s global strategy is focused on four key aspects which we see as integral to ensuring a sustainable continuum of services: support for countries in developing robust, national breast and cervical cancer plans; providing targeted clinical training to address skill gaps among low and mid level providers and enhance the capacities of critical medical specialists radiologists, surgeons and oncologists; and finally, to help countries build up their cancer registries and health information management.

Our brief presentations were followed by a lively Q& A session with questions ranging, from how PRRR aims to address the current challenges countries face with severe limitations in lab diagnostic capacities as well as critical clinical and pathogenesis questions around treatment of HIV+ women diagnosed with breast cancer.

I came away from the panel thinking – we have so much to do and how exciting that we have such brilliant partners leading the way on the global front. Komen is committed to advancing a holistic approach to women’s health, and to do all we can to help African countries avert this looming ‘cancer tsunami’.

*IPRI. 2012. World Breast Cancer Report, 2012, International Prevention Research Institute (IPRI).

About the author

Susan G. Komen has written 342 articles for Susan G. Komen® | Blog

Nancy G. Brinker promised her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer forever. In 1982, that promise became Susan G. Komen and launched the global breast cancer movement. Today, Komen is the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures. Thanks to events like the Komen Race for the Cure®, we have invested more than $1.9 billion to fulfill our promise, becoming the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight against breast cancer in the world.