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Cancer Control interviews Dr Andre

IIbawi, WHO's Technical Officer for

Cancer Control

Andre, can we begin by asking about your background and

how you got to WHO?

For many of my colleagues and for me, working at World

Health Organization (WHO) is an unexpected privilege

and not a planned outcome - it is a unique opportunity and

responsibility to serve communities using a powerful platform

and network of collaborators.

My background is as a cancer surgeon trained in the United

States. During my training, I had the honour of taking three

months to work at UICC as a fellow with support from the US

National Cancer Institute and Breast Health Global Initiative.

My wife, Shannon, came, on sabbatical from her faculty

position in family medicine, to volunteer at WHO.

Upon returning to the United States, my wife and I were

preparing to move to Africa to work as academic clinicians. An

unexpected opportunity to work short-term at WHO opened

up. We felt that we could come and help get something started

then move to Africa. Six months became a year, two years and

now six years.

But, it has been such a privilege to have worked at WHO, to

interface with governments committed to action, to be inspired

by partners and to be moved by advocates. We have seen a

turning of the tide towards oncology being recognized now as

a priority area within public health globally and, increasingly,

an area in which governments are improving care. It has been a

privilege to feel part of this shifting global narrative recognizing

the urgency and humanity in cancer care.

The popular perception is that when it comes to cancer

WHO is only interested in cancer prevention. Is this view


WHO is the public health agency for the United Nations.

Our primary objective, enshrined in our Constitution, is "the

attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health

as a fundamental right of every human being". This inspiring

ambition is important to understand our functions - that they are not limited to prevention but extend from promotion to


When we look at progress in health, with what has driven

improvements in life expectancy, the primary achievements

have been achieved through public health policies and

programmes. This same is true in cancer. A lot of our progress,

particularly in high-income countries, has been reached

because of risk factor reduction and the earlier detection of


But, this is not the only dimension. The cancer agenda, as

part of the global public architecture, is broader. Millions of

lives each year are saved because of improvements in access

to quality care. This is the tenet of health for all as part of the

2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Cancer.

We cannot achieve the SDGs without investing more in

cancer control. And, our work at WHO reflects that reality -

we have launched three global initiatives with partners around

the world to catalyze immediate improvements in access to

care and to save lives.

While many cancers can be prevented - and should be - the

reality is an estimated 50%-70% of cancers cannot. There

will be generations of people affected by cancer who deserve

attention and care. And, that providing care, we can drive

prosperity and development for all.

The popular misconception of regarding cancer as entirely

a problem requiring clinical solutions is frustrating because

so many of the buttons one needs to press lie beyond the

control of clinicians.

Yes. You raise an important point. Cancer control, like all of

health, requires a "whole-of-government, whole-of-society

response". This must be our approach to achieve the most

meaningful success, because if we focus only on the areas that

are frequently in the public discourse - whether it be cancer

medicines or advanced technologies for screening - we miss the

opportunity to have a holistic and person-centred response.

André Ilbawi, MD, Technical Officer, Cancer Control; Department of

Noncommunicable Diseases Division of Universal Health Coverage (Communicable

and Noncommunicable Diseases) and World Health Organization


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