Africa Check (Johannesburg)

12 June 2014

Africa: Channel 4 Wrong to Claim Cancer Is Bigger Cause of Death in Africa Than Aids

Does cancer kill more people in Africa than malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/Aids combined? No. Editors of a Channel 4 programme in the UK tell Africa Check they were wrong and are withdrawing the claim.

Does cancer kill more people in Africa than malaria, tuberculosis, or TB, and HIV/Aids combined?

This was the claim made during a recent episode of Unreported World on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom.

A Channel 4 viewer got in touch with Africa Check and asked us to look into the claim.

What is the bigger cause of death in Africa?

"Tonight on Unreported World: malaria, TB and AIDS are the diseases we usually associate with Africa but more people die from cancer than all of those put together," claimed reporter Krishnan Guru-Murthy.

Is this really the case? We checked to see what the numbers show.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) compiles data on the number of deaths and their causes in the WHO Africa region. This region includes all African countries excluding Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.

The WHO's most recent data is for 2011 and reveals that about 300,000 people died from cancers in the Africa region that year. This includes 13 different kinds of cancer including cervical cancer, pancreatic cancer, skin cancers and stomach cancer.

This is a significant figure but much lower than the number of people who died from HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

In 2011, more than 1-million people died from HIV/Aids, 530,000 people died from malaria and 218,000 people died from tuberculosis in the Africa region, according to WHO figures. This is a total of 1.8-million deaths.

And it's not just HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB

And it is not just HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB that cause more deaths in Africa than cancer. Cancer deaths are in fact overshadowed by many other causes.

In the WHO Africa region in 2011 over 1-million people died from cardiovascular diseases, 730,000 people died from diarrhoeal diseases and 607,000 people died from parasitic diseases.

The cancer statistics relates to 'developing world'

We contacted Channel 4 and asked them to provide the source of this claim. Series editor, Suzanne Lavery, replied to our query and said the claim came from the Global Cancer Society.

As she acknowledged the US-based Global Cancer Society's claim in fact relates to the entire developing world, and Channel 4 had mistakenly applied it to Africa.

Part of the reason that cancer is increasing in developed and developing countries is linked to lifestyle but part is also linked to rising average life expectancies. Crudely put, the longer you live, on average, the more likely they are to get cancer.

Conclusion - Cancer is still a lesser health problem than HIV/AIDS and other diseases

Cancer is a significant health problem on the continent, but the best available figures show that HIV/AIDS and other diseases still cause far more deaths than cancer at present.

The mistake made by a serious channel such as Channel 4 is hard to understand. If people sometimes complain that Africa is seen as "a country" it would appear as if it was mistaken here for the whole developing world.

However, the programme makers are to be commended for recognising and correcting the mistake.

"We are going to take the episode down and correct it," Lavery told Africa Check. "Thank you in fact for pointing this out."

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Edited by Peter Cunliffe-Jones

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