Cancer tsumani - This is one warning we can’t ignore

The floods of recent winters, especially as they seem to become more and more severe, have been very difficult for many homeowners and businesses and they have set a by-now annual drama in motion: distraught flood victims berate senior politicians or local authority officials, criticising the fact that they did not act on long-ago warnings that might have saved them from the worst ravages of the deluge.

These heartfelt and often justified criticisms do not always recognise the scale of the escalating problem, the huge almost unmanageable response required or that nearly all of us, in one way or another, have contributed to the situation. Nevertheless, early action, including unpopular planning restrictions that might have led to litigation against planning authorities, might not have prevented the floods but it might have reduced the impact on the lives of those caught in their path. Warnings were ignored, opportunities were missed and now homeowners and businesses must pick up a bill so intimidating that the insurance industry has washed its hands of the crisis. This habit of ignoring warnings offers, it seems, a lesson we refuse to learn.

The World Health Organisation yesterday issued a warning so startling, so challenging in its sweep that it cannot be ignored as flood warnings have been for decades. If it is it will be yet another legacy inflicted on rather than gifted to the future, one that ignored an opportunity — and wasted the time needed — to try to prevent what the WHO has described as a “tidal wave of cancer” sweeping across the world, especially the developing world, in the coming decades.

This alarm bell does not deal exclusively with cancers that cannot be easily cured but the cancers more often than not caused by lifestyles that contemporary medicine has realised are dangerously self-destructive.

The WHO, not by any means the first organisation to do this, has warned in the strongest possible terms that we need to greatly reduce our use of sugars, alcohol and tobacco to prevent an almost doubling of world cancer figures before 2035. Fourteen million people a year are diagnosed with cancer, but that is predicted to increase to 19m by 2025, 22m by 2030 and 24m by 2035.

These figures, combined with a report earlier this week that confirmed the sinister link between wider availability of fast food and the growth in life-shortening obesity, reaffirm that we are sleep walking towards a self-inflicted health catastrophe.

But what will we do about it? Will we wait until it’s almost too late, if it is not so already, to introduce meaningful, effective measures to curtail the consumption of foods, fats, sugars and drugs that, as the WHO warn, will kill something around 100,000 people every working day by 2035? Will we ignore these warnings as blithely as we ignored warnings on floods?

One of the difficulties about acting on predictions like this is that our world can often have a very dismal view of the future, a view so full of apprehension that we sit like rabbits in the headlights. In this instance we can look to the future as a kind of liberation from the foods and drugs that threaten our wellbeing ... but only if we heed the warnings.

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