Agency officials compared the scourge of cancer in the developing world with the devastation wrought by AIDS and other more publicized diseases. Because cancer is less attention grabbing, however, attempts to fight it are foundering on lack of funding for the technology that could drastically cut cancer death rates, they said.
"A silent crisis in cancer treatment exists in developing countries and is intensifying every year," said Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Dr. Bhadrasain Vikram, an IAEA radiation oncologist, said two thirds of last year's six million deaths occurred in developing countries lacking radiotherapy machines and experts.
"If we had the resources, probably half of those patients could be saved," he said in a telephone interview from London. Among those who survive, lack of radiation treatment often leads to the removal, for example, of an eye, a breast or a larynx that normally could be saved.
In the poorest countries of Africa and Asia, doctors sometimes "don't even bother to make a diagnosis," he said. "They consider it a death sentence."
Vikram spoke as part of an IAEA campaign to raise funds for radiation therapy machines and training, amid projections that cancer deaths will explode over the next decade, particularly in poor countries unable to provide therapy available in the developed world.
Citing figures from the World Health Organization, the Vienna-based agency said annual cancer deaths worldwide will rise to 10 million by 2020, compared to six million in 2000, the last year full statistics were available.
It said at least $2.5 billion is needed over the next 15 years, half to purchase machines, and half to train the physicians, physicists and technicians needed to provide treatment.
With only a "few million" dollars now available, Vikram said the project was far away from meeting its funding goal.
"At the moment, we are only able to supply three to five machines a year, and we need to supply hundreds, if not thousands," he said.
Vikram said cancer rates in the developing world last year exceeded those in developed countries for the first time in history, in part because people in underdeveloped nations now are living into their 40s and 50s, when cancers normally begin to strike.
Radiotherapy is most effective against localized solid tumors, such as cancers of the skin, mouth, larynx, brain, breast, prostate or uterine cervix.