Childhood cancer on rise but early detection can be a life-saver

Modern life has been identified as a possible cause of a rise in cases of childhood cancer, as UAE doctors say the focus should be on improving survival rates.

ABU DHABI // Modern life has been identified as a possible cause of a rise in cases of childhood cancer, as UAE doctors say the focus should be on improving survival rates.

In Britain, childhood cancer has risen by more than 40 per cent since 2000, according to Children with Cancer UK, but it is still unclear what environmental factors may be affecting the increase in cases here because there is a lack of data.

Although detection has improved, young people have become more sedentary and are exposed to more environmental factors, such as pollution, that are suspected of increasing cancer cases.

In the United States, according to CureSearch for Children’s Cancer Foundation, figures increased from 13 children per 100,000 in 1975 to 17 per 100,000 since 2005. In the UK, cancer is the leading cause of death in children aged one to 14.

The Friends of Cancer Patients (FoCP) charity in the UAE launched a campaign in 2014 called Ana, which encouraged parents and health professionals to look for signs of cancer in children.

Dr Sawsan Al Madhi, director general of the Sharjah-based charity, has also seen a rising number of cancer cases.

“On average we see 20 to 25 cases a month, with around 10 to 15 being new cases,” she said. “Just one or two may be children but about 85 per cent [of cases seen by FoCP] have had successful treatment and are now free from cancer.”

Advisers at Bristol University, who provided the research for Children with Cancer UK, said environmental causes such as air pollution, pesticides and solvents played a big role in childhood leukaemia. They also said combinations of electrical power fields in homes and modern appliances were putting young people at risk.

“Unfortunately, there are so many different types of cancer found in children, so there is a vast spectrum of symptoms that can be mistaken for other conditions,” Dr Al Madhi said.

“If a child is not eating, has fever or constant headaches, is sweating at night or losing weight, it may not be cancer, but it should be checked.

“We wanted the Ana campaign to focus on children, so parents and doctors can look deeper at their symptoms when they arise.

“Children are very tough and resilient, they deal with cancer better than adults sometimes.”

In the UK, colon cancer in children has risen 200 per cent since 1998, while thyroid cancer has doubled. Figures also show cervical cancer has risen 50 per cent and ovarian cancer by 70 per cent.

Similar data for childhood cancer is not available in the UAE but Indian Dr Zainul Aabideen, a consultant in paediatrics and oncology at Burjeel Hospital, Abu Dhabi, said leukaemia, a blood cancer, was the most common cancer he finds in children.

“It is difficult to predict the impact of certain environmental factors like technology and pollution,” he said.

“There is a belief that breastfeeding can help to reduce the cancer risk in children, and that maternal exposure to certain toxic fumes from chemical-based paints can increase risk. If parents are smoking or exposed to smoke, this will also increase risk.”

HeadSmart is a UK project to enhance the awareness of symptoms of brain tumours in children and young people.

Dr Aabideen, who worked in the UK for 15 years prior to the UAE, would like to see a similar programme rolled out for doctors here.

“Childhood cancer is rare, so the symptoms are similar to many other childhood diseases,” he said.

“The most important thing is that early detection can vastly improve outcomes.

“There are fewer facilities here in the Middle East than in the UK but access is improving all the time. The majority of people are getting better treatment and outcomes are improving but there is a lot of work to do.”

nwebster@thenational.ae

Published: September 9, 2016 04:00 AM

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