The world’s costliest disease

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Heart disease may be the world’s leading cause of death, but cancer is the planet’s No.1 “economic killer,” according to a report this week from the American Cancer Society. The AP reports:

Cancer’s economic toll was $895 billion in 2008 — equivalent to 1.5 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, the report says. That’s in terms of disability and years of life lost — not the cost of treating the disease, which wasn’t addressed in the report.

The report, in other words, measures the economic cost of lost life (and disability-free life) only. Cancer’s No.1 ranking therefore reflects two facts: first, that the disease kills many millions of people each year — far more, for example, than either malaria or HIV — and, second, that many people dying of cancer are young enough that they could have continued to live productive and healthy lives had they not gotten sick when they did.

Today, the vast majority of cancer deaths occur in the developing world, where routine cancer screening is rare and treatment options are often limited. The cancer boom has emerged as cigarette smoking and Western diets continue their global spread. Earlier today, the World Health Organization announced its belief that tobacco use in China, for example, should get the same kind of public-health attention as the deadly 2003 SARS outbreak. Some 300 million Chinese people are current smokers. And, according to the American Cancer Society report, lung and related cancers account for roughly one fifth of cancer’s total global economic burden. The report is due for release on Thursday.