India and China, so different and yet so often compared one to the other because they share many benefits and problems of quick development: surprisingly one of these is soaring cancer rates.

Since Jim O’Neill, the retiring chairman of Goldman Sachs’ Asset Management, coined the term ‘BRICs’ in his paper from 2001, “Building Better Global Economic BRICs”, the countries Brazil, Russia, India and China have been grouped together due to their similar economic development levels. Since then, these countries have been closely monitored as a group due to their perceived potential in the future to shift the economic power of the world away from the developed G7 economies and towards the developing world. However, India and China seem to be sharing more than just potential for economic expansion in the future.  A common problem is jeopardizing the potential of their future economic and social potential– soaring cancer rates.

The situation is similarly worrying and also worsening in both India and China, mainly due to the large-scale industrialization and pollution that has been driving growth in those countries in the past decade. Cancer recently became the number one cause of death in China, with 27% of all cancer-related deaths in the world occurring in the country. With less than one third of patients surviving for longer than 5 years, the country has a significantly lower survival rate compared to developed countries. Last year the environment ministry even acknowledged the existence of “cancer villages”. Projections in India look similarly worrying.  The disease has been identified as the biggest public health challenge in the country as a recent report from the World Health Organization outlines that the number of cases is set to double in 20 years. Only in the region of Punjab, as many as 18 deaths per day occur due to cancer, while the country records most deaths due to breast cancer in the world.

The reasons for these rapid increases are also similar – rapid industrialisation and massive growth have dramatically increased the pollution of the environment in both countries. The Chinese government has been criticized heavily because of the low air quality in many Chinese cities and thus extremely high lung cancer incidences in the country are not surprising. On the other hand, the excessive use of chemical fertilizers in the soil and increasing contamination of water with heavy metals in India have been linked as a major cause of the rising cancer-related deaths.

Interestingly, both countries seem to be equally struggling with providing adequate infrastructure and properly educating its citizens. The Indian government built a cancer ward in Punjab just 6 years ago and people spend the night in line, waiting for an available appointment. Doctors operating in the biggest cancer hospital in Asia, in the city of Tianjin, China, perform at least 8 operations a day – 4 times more than 10 years ago.  Both governments struggle to provide financially sound support schemes for families in both countries, often times making it impossible for the middle class to cover the extensive treatment costs. The cultural perception and lack of information on cancer is also very similar in both countries – many perceive the illness as too terrible to face and thus seek treatment (if at all) when it is usually too late.

It is clear that both countries are facing a growing problem that could affect not only their population, but also their economic potential. Thus, the need for action is very pressing. A good starting point seems to be a large-scale educational campaign about the causes and preventions of cancer. However, both governments need to significantly invest in their healthcare spending in order to ensure that economic growth does not come at an expensive human cost.

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Alex Ivanov

Alex Ivanov