With 211 cases per 100,000 of the population, Malta has the eighth lowest cancer rates in a list of 50 countries.

The island fares much better than many affluent countries which placed higher up in the table, with Britain, for example, ranking 22nd with 267 people developing cancer per 100,000 of the population every year.

In the breast cancer table, Malta placed 24th, with a rate of 72 cases per 100,000 persons per year.

However, health information and research director Neville Calleja urged caution on how to interpret Malta’s ranking.

“You need to look at competing causes of death,” he said. For example, heart disease, the top killer in Malta, could reduce the number of people who succumb to cancer simply because they may be dying of a cardiovascular cause first.

In addition, other risk factors for cancer existed, which varied from one country to another, he said. For example, northern countries had a higher level of radon-radiation from the ground from substances like coal.

The World Cancer Research fund, which published the list based on World Health Organisation estimates, pointed out that high-income countries generally had significantly higher cancer rates than lower income ones.

The only non-European countries in the top 20 are Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, Israel, French Polynesia and Uruguay. Denmark topped the table, with about 326 people out of every 100,000 developing cancer every year.

This was likely to be partly due to the fact that high-income countries were better at diagnosing and recording new cases of cancer, the fund said. But a large part of the reason was also that high-income countries tended to have higher levels of obesity and alcohol consumption and lower levels of physical activity.

Dr Calleja said under-reporting or lack of screening facilities in Malta were unlikely to be behind Malta’s low numbers. “Malta has a very centralised health care system making the cancer registry rather comprehensive,” he said, adding that even the mortality registry informed the cancer registry of those cases that were unknown to the services but happened to be due to a previously undiagnosed cancer.

And lack of screening tended to have a bigger effect on the stage at which cancers were detected rather that whether they were detected or not.

*Taken from Ferlay J, Shin HR, Bray F, Forman D, Mathers C and Parkin DM. GLOBOCAN 2008, Cancer Incidence and Mortality Worldwide: IARC CancerBase No. 10, Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer 2010.

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