To those who tackle child cancer around the developing world Bangladesh offers a daunting proposition. A country of more than 160m people, almost half its population is under 15 years old. The medical system is underfunded and straining to cope with a rising caseload. There is political turmoil to deal with. And then there are all the problems that come with poverty and living in one of the world’s most fragile states.
But for World Child Cancer, this year’s partner in the FT seasonal appeal, Bangladesh holds a special place in the heart. WCC was founded in 2007 by Geoff Thaxter, who at the time worked for CLIC Sargent, the UK’s largest children’s cancer charity. It was a trip to Bangladesh for a conference, during which he and his wife visited children’s cancer wards, that inspired him to found WCC.
The couple had lost their own daughter, Lisa, to cancer a few years earlier. In Bangladesh they discovered young children with cancer who were going without even the simplest of treatments. Among them was one young patient with a brain tumour who received only paracetamol to manage the pain.
Geoff Thaxter died of cancer in 2008. But his work to help establish WCC has done a lot to change the fortunes of children with cancer in Bangladesh.
In 2012 WCC launched a five-year twinning partnership with the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University in Dhaka, which houses the country’s only specialist paediatric oncology unit. WCC pairs Dhaka oncologists with experts at University College London Hospitals and the British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver.
The programme is built in large part around training local doctors and nurses. Earlier this month, nurses on a WCC-organised trip spent four days training BSMMU nurses. It also provides subsidised drugs to treat young patients whose parents otherwise would not be able to afford them, a crucial lifeline for families already living on the edge.
During a recent visit to Dhaka, WCC volunteers met Bokal, a two-year-old diagnosed with a liver tumour in September. She is now on her fourth cycle of chemotherapy but the journey to the BSMMU unit is a long one. To bring her to the hospital, her grandmother and mother make fortnightly bus trips from their home 300km away.
The odds are not good for Bokal. According to WCC data, fewer than half of the children who arrive at the BSMMU paediatric oncology unit will still be alive a year after their diagnosis. But with WCC’s help Bokal at least has a fighting chance.