Childhood cancer care in Africa hit hard by pandemic — Global Issues – The pink report news

Drastic measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and an increased focus of health systems on response have led to disruptions in other essential health services on the continent.

Cancer screening and treatment, including childhood cancer, has been particularly hard hit.

‘Really heartbreaking’

A WHO survey found that screening was affected in 46 percent of countries, with 13 percent reporting a disruption of more than 50 percent.

“We estimate that more than 28,000 children died of cancer in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020. This is truly heartbreaking, given that childhood cancers are curable if they are detected early and provided comprehensive care,”said Dr. Jean-Marie Dangou, Coordinator of the Non-Communicable Diseases Program at the WHO Regional Office.

In Africa, the childhood cancer survival rate is about 20 percent, compared to more than 80 percent in high-income countries.

As early diagnosis improves survival, the WHO emphasized that significant improvements can be made in the lives of children with cancer by identifying the disease early and avoiding delays in care.

The UN agency fears that a significant backlog of screening and treatment due to the pandemic could lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment. This would put further strain on Africa’s overstretched medical resources and increase the number of preventable cancer deaths.

Improve early detection

“Substantial investments in cancer prevention and care, including high-quality training for medical professionals, are needed if we are to prevent cancer deaths and cases, especially among children, in our region,” said Dr. Dangou.

“As individuals, we must take the initiative to better understand the warning signs of childhood cancer to improve early detection and treatment.”

Naomi Otua from Ghana regularly visits her 10-year-old grandson, James, who lives in the central region of the country. During one of her trips, she noticed that something was seriously wrong, as the boy had jaundiced eyes and had lost significant weight.

James was eventually diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common cancer in children. He is one of approximately 400,000 children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer worldwide each year.

James started chemotherapy, which he has continued for the past three months. “His condition has improved tremendously,” Ms Otua said, adding, “I am very happy about that.”

Prohibited charges

While 80 percent of childhood cancers are curable, “this depends on early detection and progressive treatment,” said Professor Lorna Awo Renner, chief of the pediatric oncology department at Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, where James was treated.

Worldwide, most children with cancer live in developing countries such as Ghana, but only 20 to 30 percent receive treatment, often because of the cost.

In Ghana, cancer treatment is not covered by the National Health Insurance Scheme. The average cost of treating childhood cancer is about $1,000, and up to $7,000 for leukemia, which is well out of reach for many citizens.

“In Ghana, about 50 percent of patients stopped treatment halfway through due to lack of funds. However, this figure has been reduced to 15 percent with the support of a number of benevolent individuals and organizations,” said Professor Awo Renner.

Home again

In 2018, the WHO announced a new Global Initiative for Childhood Cancers (GICC) and Ghana was one of six countries selected to receive support for its implementation.

One of GICC’s key strategic partners is St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the United States, whose financial support has helped improve pediatric cancer care in Ghana, Senegal and Zambia.

“Working closely with the Ghanaian government, we have helped build and maintain a high-quality national childhood cancer program with the goal of achieving at least a 60 percent survival rate by 2030,” said Dr. Francis Kasolo, WHO representative in the country.

The UN agency has also provided technical support to health workers at Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, in addition to monitoring and surveillance tools.

For Professor Renner, it gives a great sense of satisfaction to send children back home after they have been declared cancer-free. She continues to hope that James will soon be able to beat the disease. “These kids can still live full lives,” she said. “I see it happening all the time.”

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