Not Just an Illness of the Rich: Tackling Cancer Globally

Recent global health campaigns have focused on HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. Tackling the growing threat from cancer, says medical anthropologist Paul Farmer, could improve health care more broadly
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Photograph by Christopher Churchill

By 2020, 15 million people worldwide will have cancer and nine million of them will be living in developing countries, according to World Health Organization estimates. Harvard University physician and medical anthropologist Paul Farmer is determined to ensure that prediction doesn’t come true. Farmer, a pioneer in global health, has a history of tackling big problems. His Ph.D. dissertation on HIV in Haiti ran to 1,000 pages, leading Harvard to impose a cap. Since then, as co-founder of the nonprofit Partners In Health, he has brought medical treatments, from basic primary care to antiretroviral therapies for AIDS, to millions of the world’s poor.

Farmer’s work—chronicled in the Tracy Kidder best seller Mountains beyond Mountains and in his own books—has inspired governments and global agencies to do likewise. Recently he has focused his attention on cancer in the developing world, where the disease is increasingly common and costly treatments are often hard to come by. In the medical journal the Lancet last October, he and a team of other leaders from the Global Task Force on Expanded Access to Cancer Care and Control in Developing Countries announced an ambitious, multipronged plan to increase these countries’ access to cancer medical resources—by raising money, driving down the cost of drugs, and figuring out new ways to get those drugs to patients in need. Science writer Mary Carmichael spoke with Farmer at his office in Boston. Excerpts follow.

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