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Jens Spahn
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

German health minister defends cancer comments

February 4, 2019

Conservative Jens Spahn has used World Cancer Day to stick by his controversial prediction that cancer can be eradicated within 10 to 20 years. His remarks provoked an outcry from some in the medical community.


German Health Minister Jens Spahn has defended his comments that advances in cancer research mean the disease can be wiped out in the next two decades.

"We want to defeat cancer by controlling it. That will not be easy. But that's why we have to try it, with courage and ambition," he told the Rhein Neckar Zeitung newspaper's February 4 World Cancer Day edition. "It's important that we set ourselves big goals."

The minister stressed that there had been significant advances in cancer diagnosis, therapy and research in recent years, drawing parallels with the fight against HIV/AIDS.

"Who would have thought 30 years ago that life expectancy with a well-treated HIV infection would be as high as without an infection?"

That Germany has one of the lowest HIV infection rates in the world "gives us confidence that we can make a difference," he said.

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Second biggest killer

According to the World Health Organization, cancer is the second-leading cause of death globally after cardiovascular diseases. It was responsible for an estimated 9.6 million deaths in 2018.

Spahn said World Cancer Day was part of a campaign to raise awareness and educate people about cancer risk factors, such as smoking, which is responsible for nearly 22 percent of cancer deaths worldwide. Poor eating habits and lack of physical activity are the other major causes.

Spahn said screenings for colorectal and cervical cancer — two forms of cancer with high cure rates when detected early — would be expanded in Germany. He also said he was pushing for all German adolescents to receive the HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer.

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Simplifying the problem

Spahn drew criticism from health experts and patient groups on Friday when he first spoke to the media about his cancer outlook.

Ulrich Keilholz, director of Charite Comprehensive Cancer Center in Berlin, told the Funke Media Group that the aim of beating cancer in the next 10 to 20 years had been repeated again and again since the 1960s.

"This is a very common hope, [and] it simply doesn't work that way," he said.

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Carsten Bokemeyer, director of the Cancer Center of the Hamburg-Eppendorf University Medical Center, said that while there would be "massive progress" in treatment over the next 10 years, "cancer is a scourge of humanity, which is created in the cells."

And those cells have the ability to constantly adapt and develop resistance to new therapies, he said.

Others accused the minister of behaving irresponsibly and raising false hopes.

"The rate of new cancer cases in Germany has almost doubled since the 1970s. Nearly 500,000 people contract cancer every year, and about 220,000 die from it," Eugen Brysch, chairman of the German Foundation for Patient Protection, told the German Catholic News Agency (KNA). "A health minister should not lose the trust of patients for a headline."

nm/msh (KNA, AFP, dpa)

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