COVID-19 has had a “catastrophic impact” on people with cancer over the past two years, as up to 50% of cancer services in Europe have been disrupted, a WHO official said on Thursday.

WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge said the 53 countries in the Europe Central Asian region stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific recorded 12 million weekly coronavirus cases, the highest weekly tally since the pandemic started.

“I want to take the opportunity to underscore the catastrophic impact the pandemic has had over the past two years on people with cancer,” said Kluge, flagging that Friday is World Cancer Day.

“The way in which the pandemic delays cancer care and creates service backlogs is a deadly interplay,” said Kluge, noting that cancer services were disrupted by up to 50% in all countries reporting in the Europe Central Asia region.

He said that one in four people in Europe and Central Asia would receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime.

Cancer a leading cause of mortality

“It is one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity in the WHO European Region, accounting for more than 20% of all deaths,” said Kluge.

On the coronavirus, he said that the new COVID-19 case incidence is driven mainly by the highly transmissible omicron variant “as it sweeps from West to East.”

Kluge said that 30% of all COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began have been reported this year and that to date, there were nearly 150 million reported cases of COVID-19 in the region.

“Hospitalizations continue to rise, mainly in countries with lower vaccination uptake in vulnerable populations,” said the WHO official.

“This rise, however, is not as rapid as the case incidence rate – and overall, admissions to intensive care have not increased significantly. For now, the number of deaths across the region is starting to plateau.”

Kluge said he wanted to reiterate a call he made last week referring to a “plausible endgame for the pandemic.”

He said it is “not to say that it is now all over – but to highlight that in the European Region, there is a singular opportunity to take control of the transmission.”

“As we go forward, maintenance of essential health services, including services along the continuum of cancer care – from prevention, early detection, diagnosis, treatment, and palliative care – must be a component of emergency planning and response,” said Kluge.

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