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Each year some 200,000 children around the world are diagnosed with cancer. But ask the experts how many children in the world have cancer and you run into what is arguably the biggest problem in tackling the disease.
Low awareness of the disease and its symptoms means that most cases of cancer in children in the developing world go undiagnosed. And that represents probably the biggest reason why survival rates for cancer are much higher in rich countries such as the UK than in poor countries such as Bangladesh.
Tim Eden, a retired paediatric oncologist who is a senior adviser to World Child Cancer, the charity picked by FT staff for this year’s seasonal appeal, says in countries such as Bangladesh as few as one in 10 cases of child cancer is diagnosed. The rest are misdiagnosed or not picked up. Bangladesh alone should expect 8,000 to 9,000 cases of child cancer a year. But it sees only 1,500.
Even when cases are diagnosed, lack of awareness about cancer in many developing nations means they are picked up late, which has an impact on treatments and survival rates.
In Africa, Burkitt lymphoma, a tumour that can be cured easily if picked up early, can account for up to 50 per cent of cases. It is often picked up late, so survival rates are much lower than they ought to be. Dr Eden says: “In developing countries people are not diagnosed at all. Or they are misdiagnosed and they die. Or they are diagnosed and not referred and go to local healers. Or they go [to the doctor] too late to be cured.”
World Child Cancer addresses that problem by helping local hospitals and governments to set up awareness programmes and by doing advocacy work, which is often labour intensive and expensive.
There are broader problems in health systems, such as chronic underfunding and the poor education of doctors and nurses, that cannot be easily addressed. But closing the diagnosis gap is crucial to making sure that children in the developing world have a fighting chance if and when cancer hits.
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