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BVGH President Jennifer Dent. (BVGH Photo)

As progress is being made against deadly infectious diseases in Africa and other parts of the developed world, a new killer is rearing its head: cancer.

Cancer now kills more than 600,000 people on the African continent each year, 50 percent more than malaria, which has traditionally been one of the biggest public health concerns in Africa.

In response to this increase, Seattle nonprofit BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH) announced the African Access Initiative (AAI) Wednesday, which will enlist the aid of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in helping develop cancer treatment and R&D efforts in six countries in Africa.

“The global health community has made important headway in tackling infectious diseases such as malaria in Africa, yet we are seeing an alarming rise in cancer and other non-communicable diseases,” BVGH President Jennifer Dent said in a press release. “The BVGH team will leverage our strong industry relationships, African networks, and capacity-building programs to help local healthcare professionals gain access to the cancer medicines they need and deliver educational, diagnostic, and treatment services in their communities.”

The African Access Initiative will work with one to three hospitals in each of the countries — Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. The BVGH team will work with care providers and local public health officials to identify the region’s needs when it comes to combating cancer.

The nonprofit will then foster partnerships between those players and companies with complementary capabilities and interests.

Dent told GeekWire that BVGH is already speaking with the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center about the possibility of partnering on the project. The nonprofit can count several large industry partners on other projects, including pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, and NGOs including the World Health Organization (WHO).

It also has an ongoing relationship with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Seattle-based nonprofit run by the Microsoft founder and his partner, which is not currently involved in the AAI project.

“Healthcare has come a long way in Africa, but as we make inroads into some of the infectious diseases that have so plagued the continent, we must refocus our vision on the non-communicable diseases, especially cancer, that affects millions of people globally,” Nigerian Minister of Health Isaac Adewole said in the BVGH release. “We must take action now to build infrastructure and develop sustainable means to provide access to cancer treatments in Africa. Our partnership with BVGH is an important step down this path.”

Dent said the project reflects a shift in global health priorities around the world. As we make progress in eliminating infectious diseases like malaria, non-communicable diseases like cancer and heart disease are becoming more common and will require more global health resources, she said.

WHO predicts that cancer deaths will double in Africa by 2020, and the continent is not alone: cancer is increasingly becoming a focus for public health in areas like China and India, as well.

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