Babies and children * Young people

International Childhood Cancer Day

International Childhood Cancer Day Treatment inequality highlighted

Each year 200,000 children worldwide are diagnosed with cancer. 

In the UK and other developed countries rapid diagnosis and treatment thankfully means eight out of ten with this awful illness now survive – a massive leap from three in ten just 40 years ago.

But, shockingly, in poorer parts of the world the figure plummets to as low as 20 or even ten per cent. 

Today (February 15) is International Childhood Cancer Day, and children’s cancer charities are joining forces to raise awareness of this appalling disparity – and the fact that children from every country have the right to proper information, speedy diagnosis and the best possible medical care.

“The majority of children in the world who suffer from childhood cancer will die undiagnosed,” said Besom Pau, chairman of the International Confederation of Childhood Cancer Parent Organisations (ICCCPO), which leads the campaign.

Pau added: “This is largely due to the lack of awareness that some cancers are curable, poor access to information, late or no detection and lack of effective treatment.”

One international volunteer helping in a children’s cancer ward added: “It is one of the saddest experiences to witness children and their parents in under-resourced wards unable and unmotivated to fight the battle any longer, just waiting in despair for the inevitable to happen, knowing that with funding from those able to help the outcome could be so different.” 

With prompt treatment most children with cancer can in fact be cured. And significant medical advances mean survival rates continue to improve – but this has still not reached the majority of children diagnosed worldwide.

In a bid to remedy the situation, the ICCCPO is developing medical partnerships, which by sharing the vital expertise of doctors from “resource-rich” countries will help save lives in poorer regions. 

It also helps to raise funds for projects improving access to medical staff, drugs and equipment. 

There are some 220 cancers that affect children, and the most common include brain tumours – the leading cause of death in childhood cancer – bone cancer such as Ewing’s Sarcoma, Hodgkins Lymphoma, Leukaemia - which accounts for one third of childhood diagnoses - and Neuroblastoma, which usually affects children under the age of five.

Children’s cancer is very different to adult cancers, occurring in different parts of the body and responding differently to treatment. Generally, the causes are unknown: there is a theory that they may start inside the womb, but it is not known why, and most types are not inherited.

Studies are ongoing to better understand of the biology of childhood cancer, with the hope that this will lead to new and better treatment approaches.

Diagnosis requires a battery of tests, which can take some time but are vital in securing the most accurate information. These can range from biopsy, where a small part of the tumour is removed, to bone marrow tests, blood tests, X-rays, CT scans and lumbar punctures, where the fluid around the spinal cord is examined to see if it contains any cancer cells.

Treatment varies depending on the child’s condition, the stage of their illness and their general health, and may consist of a combination of treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy.

As ICCCPO points out: “The treatment and care of childhood cancer requires a whole interdisciplinary team, to provide not just the medical treatment of the child (which may include surgery and radiation), but also the psychosocial support for the child and the whole family.”

In the UK and Ireland, a network of specialist treatment centres exists to treat the under-15s, which is credited for having dramatically improved survival rates.

There is also a high proportion of children being treated as part of clinical trials of new medicines, which is another factor said to have improved outcomes.

But these facilities are not available in other parts of the world.

In Africa, for instance, only five per cent of childhood cancers are cured – despite the fact that there are many affordable treatment options.

As African cancer care charity Afrox points out: "With early detection and improved access to treatment there is considerable potential to reduce child mortality from cancer."

Charity World Child Cancer adds: “Child cancer is highly curable yet in low and middle income countries tens of thousands of children die needlessly every year from the disease - most dying without any effective pain relief.

“Poor diagnosis coupled with too few specially trained doctors and nurses and the mistaken belief that child cancer is too difficult to cure combine to create very low survival rates. In fact, at least 50 per cent of child cancers can be cured even in resource-poor environments with relatively simple and inexpensive drugs and procedures, which have been known to doctors for decades.”

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This article was published on Wed 15 February 2012

Image © Katrina Brown -

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