Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
It is a rare disease, according to the Hellenic Society of Pediatric Hematology – Oncology (EEPAO), but with serious consequences for both patients and their families. A disease that can be defeated but often with painful and long-term efforts and serious immediate and delayed complications.
The numbers are indicative: 300-350 new diagnoses every year in Greece, 35000 throughout Europe with 6000 children dying due to cancer. The Pediatric Oncologists-Hematologists, Elena Solomou and Antonis Kattamis (Professor NKUA) report that in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the research community turning to a new path of research approach.
In Lancet Oncology, the work of Sheena Mukkada and partners has shown that the scientific community is united for the common good at this difficult time. This prospective study analyzed data from children and adolescents (<19 years) with cancer and COVID-19 around the world. Typically, data from approximately 1500 patients from 131 hospitals in 45 countries, including patients from Greece, were used. 259 (19.9%) of the patients had a severe or critical infection, while 50 (3.8%) patients died. Comparing the data with adults, mortality in adults with cancer is 28%, much higher than in children.
Childhood cancer must be a priority for any strategic planning of each country’s health system. These diseases in childhood are treatable, with overall survival at 80% in high-income countries. But when the right resources are lacking, such as in low-income and middle-income countries (where about three-quarters of the global number of childhood cancer is recorded), only 20-30% of individuals have long-term survival. Delays in early detection, poor access to diagnostic services in the absence of full access to required cancer medicines, higher rates of comorbidity (e.g. malnutrition, infections and poverty) as well as refusal or abandonment of treatment are common, resulting in increased morbidity and mortality. All these factors result in lower survival rates and higher morbidity rates than in high-income countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in access to each country’s health system despite efforts to tackle childhood cancer. With the mandate given by governments in the 2018 cancer resolution, the WHO, together with major international childhood cancer hospitals, set a goal of treating at least 60% of all children with cancer worldwide and reducing pain for all children.
The data from this study enable us to understand that during the pandemic there is a unique opportunity to develop and implement strategies tailored to specific health systems and to reduce inequalities in diagnosis and access to medication in children with cancer globally.
The scientific community makes concerted efforts to achieve high cure rates, with the best possible quality of life and the minimum possible long-term complications. Genetic and molecular biology are now the necessary element of diagnosis and treatment in a large part of neoplasms of children and adolescents. Personalized treatment, which will further increase the chances of cure for young patients, reducing immediate and ultimate toxicity, is a goal that may become a reality in the near future.
In this context, HSPHO has taken initiatives to strengthen cooperation between the oncology departments of the Territory and the recognition of our country as an equal member of European scientific organizations. It participates in international collaborative treatment protocols, thus ensuring access to innovative medicines and therapies under proper and organized supervision. Of course, the process of Greece’s full, equal access to each of these protocols comes at a high cost. Fortunately, however, in the long, arduous struggle of the children and their families, over the years, valuable helpers and supporters, associations and volunteers have stood by.
The understaffing of the Pediatric Hematology / Oncology Departments in medical, nursing and paramedical staff, the lack of public structures for targeted molecular tests, the lack of financial coverage of specialized tests and the difficulty of access to innovative medicines are problems for which we have repeatedly informed the competent bodies.
Each of us can help to the best of our ability! You can become a volunteer blood donor, or volunteer bone marrow donor, or help associations and organizations supporting children and their families, either through sponsorships or by donating some of his time.
Any effort to improve the care of children with cancer is welcome and important!