Childhood cancer care in Africa hit hard by pandemic

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A two-year-old girl and her mother wait to see a doctor at the paediatric oncology unit at a hospital in Accra, Ghana.PHOTO/WHO
A two-year-old girl and her mother wait to see a doctor at the paediatric oncology unit at a hospital in Accra, Ghana.PHOTO/WHO

Cancer screening and treatment, including for childhood cancers, have been hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent World Health Organization (WHO) survey found screening of cancer was affected in 46 percent of countries.

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

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

As early diagnosis improves chances of survival, WHO stressed 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 a significant backlog in screening and treatment due to the pandemic could lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment. This would put further strain on Africa’s overburdened medical resources and increase avoidable cancer deaths.

While 80 percent of childhood cancers are curable, “this is dependent on early detection and progressive treatment,” according to Professor Lorna Awo Renner, Head of the Paediatric Oncology Unit at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, where James was treated.

Worldwide, most children with cancer live in developing countries like Ghana, but only around 20 percent to 30 percent receive treatment, often due to cost.

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