Some information to consider: Mongolia has the number-one prevalence of liver cancer in the world, with 78.1 cases per 100,000 people; for males, the rate is 97.8 cases per 100,000 cases, and for females, the rate is 61.1 cases per 100,000 cases. The second highest prevalence of liver cancer is in Lao PDR, but consider that their overall rate is 52.6 cases per 100,000, 78.7 for males and 29.7 for females.*
Mongolia also has the number-two highest prevalence of stomach cancer, with 32.5 cases per 100,000 people, 47.7 cases for men and 20.2 cases for women. As if that wasn’t enough, Mongolia is tied with Kenya for the third highest prevalence of oesophageal cancer (cancer of the food pipe, or the pipe that transports food from your mouth to the stomach), with 17.6 cases per 100,000 people, 21.2 for men and 14.9 for women.**
Let’s look at what causes these cancers. For liver cancer, according to the World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRFI), “there was convincing evidence that consuming foods contaminated with aflatoxins increases the risk of liver cancer.” While commonly found in nature, aflatoxins can corrupt crops, such as corn, especially during periods of drought. It is also found in animal feed, dairy products and eggs.
Moreover, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C viruses are causes of liver cancer. According to Ted Alcorn’s article in The Lancet, “More than a quarter of Mongolians are chronic carriers of at least one of the viruses, and almost none are aware of their status.”*** While a vaccine exists for Hep B, none exist for Hep C. Rampant alcoholism (WHO and Mongolian Ministry of Health 2006 surveys put the figure at 22% of males and 5% of females) is partly responsible for the spread of both viruses.
For stomach cancer, the WCRFI Second Expert Report Panel found that, “consumption of salt, salted and salty foods probably increase the risk of colorectal cancer,” while, “consumption of non-starchy vegetables, allium vegetables and fruits probably protect against this cancer.” The Mongolian diet is heavy in meat and salt, which can exacerbate the risk of stomach cancer. Along with limited widespread access to fruits and vegetables, one can see why Mongolia may rank number 2 in the prevalence of this disease.
For oesophageal cancer, the WCRFI Second Expert Report Panel found, “there was convincing evidence that consuming alcoholic drinks, and body fatness increase the risk of oesophageal cancer.” Smoking is also a major cause. In order to protect against this cancer, the WCRFI recommends, “Consuming non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and foods containing beta-carotene and/or vitamin C.” In other words, foods that are not part of the popular diet, and difficult to access.
It is clear that Mongolia is working at a disadvantage when it comes to diet. The land is not suited for agriculture and most fruits and vegetables must be imported in, placing the average Mongolian at the mercy of trade prices. As inflation has pushed the prices of these necessary nutrients out of the range of the average Mongolian, what can anyone expect but an aggravation of the major health crises that have compounded over generations of poor diet? What kind of a developed Mongolia can we expect as our children are growing up destined for poor health and high risk of disastrous cancer? Has the government invested in the future of its food and health of its citizens? Why cannot Mongolia, with all the modern technology that exists, by way of greenhouses and hydroponics, create a domestic supply of the very nutrients that it lacks? These are all questions that our Project for Peace, Fighting Malnutrition in Mongolia, seeks to answer.
* “Liver Cancer,” “Stomach Cancer,” “Oesophageal Cancer.” World Cancer Research Fund International, 2013, accessed May 25, 2014, (http://www.wcrf.org/cancer_statistics/data_specific_cancers/index.php.
** All data is for 2012.
*** Alcorn, Ted. “Mongolia’s Struggle with Liver Cancer.” The Lancet. 377: 9772 (2 April 2011). Pages 1139 – 1140, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60448-0. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(11)60448-0/fulltext.