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HMS Launches Breast Cancer Symposium

By Tara W. Merrigan, Contributing Writer

Harvard Medical School kicked off a three-day symposium on breast cancer in the developing world yesterday afternoon.

The conference—also sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Harvard Global Equity Initiative, and several affiliate hospitals—engaged faculty, students, medical professionals, women’s health advocates, and health policy makers in discussions on finding ways to reduce breast cancer mortality rates and increase breast cancer awareness in poorer areas of the world.

“We believe that we have to get out the word that breast cancer is public health priority in the developing world,” said Felicia M. Knaul, an HMS Professor and Director of the Harvard Global Equity Initiative. “That’s a point that hasn’t come through in the literature and existing research.”

One of the goals of the symposium this week is to improve the education of women and medical personnel as well as the quality of treatment available to those diagnosed with breast cancer.

Lawrence N. Shulman, chief of general oncology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, also stressed the importance of breast cancer awareness in the developing world. “Unless you have an educated public, women are never going to come for care because they’re not going to know what to look for,” he said.

During the conference, several other speakers referred to the rise of breast cancer in the developing world as the “unforeseen problem.” According to information packets distributed to symposium attendees, breast cancer is often viewed as a disease affecting only older women from wealthier, developed countries. “Breast cancer, left untreated, is a death sentence,” said Amy C. Sievers, a Dana Farber physician.

According to pamphlets distributed at the conference, the ratio of women who die from breast cancer to the total number of those diagnosed with it is below 0.23 in North America. This ratio is 0.354 in Latin America and the Caribbean and 0.7 in Africa.

Knaul said that to combat the inequality in cancer treatment between developed and developing nations, Harvard will launch the Task Force for Expanded Cancer Care and Control in the Developing World. The task force will draw its membership from HMS, HSPH, HGEI, and Dana Farber.

According to Knaul, the task force aims to reduce the cost of treatment drugs.

“We’re hoping to do what was done for AIDS for cancer,” she said.

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Sciences Division