A recent study revealed preventable cancers are more common within Native populations.

The study was led by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and looked specifically at indigenous groups within Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States from 2002 until 2006. Interestingly, the cancers that were shown to have a higher prevalence were preventable ones such as lung and cervical cancers.

While poorer general health and lower life expectancy had already been documented in indigenous groups, Dr. Freddie Bray, Head of the Section of Cancer Surveillance at IARC and lead author of the paper, explains:

[pull_quote_center]“This is the first time we have been able to systematically compare cancer incidence rates in Indigenous populations relative to their non-Indigenous counterparts, across these high-income countries.”[/pull_quote_center]

It would thus appear that there is either a cultural or genetic cause to the higher cancer rates rather than a socio-economic one.

The Study

The study, which was published last week in The Lancet Oncology journal, showed that for women of both indigenous and non-indigenous heritage, the primary cancers found were breast, lung and colorectal. For men of these two groups the results were similar — with lung, prostate and colorectal cancers topping the charts.

That said, men and women of indigenous heritage were affected disproportionately by cancers related to smoking and those related to infections.

“Smoking appears to be highly prevalent in Indigenous communities in all four countries compared with their non-Indigenous counterparts,” says Dr. Suzanne Moore, another lead author of the study. “Smoking is a major risk factor for a number of cancers, such as those of the lung, oral cavity, head and neck, esophagus, stomach, and cervix.”

Significance in Costa Rica

In the words of Dr. Bray:

[quote_box_center]“Given the global increases in cancer incidence that are projected over the next decades, a greater understanding of the magnitude and profile of cancer among Indigenous peoples provides critical evidence in developing and implementing targeted cancer control policies to reduce the burden in these communities worldwide.”[/quote_box_center]

IARC Director Dr. Christopher Wild agrees:

[quote_box_center]“The high incidence rates in Indigenous populations of preventable cancers… indicate an urgent need for communities and governments to work together to improve cancer surveillance, targeted prevention, early detection, and vaccination programmes.”[/quote_box_center]

While Costa Rican populations were not specifically studied, it’s likely local results would be similar if not worse due to the infrastructural barriers between many Costa Rican indigenous groups and the rest of society. With the help of UNICEF, the country has a headstart on indigenous health outreach. Even so, the situation in many pueblos indigenas is a work in progress. Just 10 years ago, one Chirripó woman told interviewers:

[pull_quote_center]“We need more latrines. Right now we’re using a trunk with a hole in it. We make it close to the house so that it’s more comfortable. It’s better to be closer to home.”[/pull_quote_center]

If infection is one of the leading causes of cancer in indigenous populations, such deplorable conditions must be addressed.

Other collaborators on the project included the Menzies School of Health Research, Australia; Alberta Ministry of Health, Canada; University of Alberta, Canada; Alberta First Nations Information Governance Centre, Canada; Massey University, New Zealand; Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, USA; and University of Washington, USA.