Lancet’s study reveals the undiagnosed childhood cancer epidemic and calls for urgent institutional action.
Owing to barriers of access and referral in health systems, nearly one in two children with cancer worldwide are never diagnosed and are likely to die untreated, reveals an analysis of childhood cancer cases in 200 countries. The study, published in The Lancet Oncology journal, estimates that there are almost four lakh new cases of childhood cancer annually, while current records count only around two lakh. According to the team from Harvard University that conducted the study, 92% of all new cases occur in low- and middle-income countries, a higher proportion than previously thought.
The model used by the team suggests there were an estimated 397,000 cases of cancer worldwide in 2015 among those aged up to 14, and only an estimated 224,000 children were diagnosed, meaning 43% of cases were missed. While only 3% of childhood cancer cases in western Europe and North America are thought to have been missed in 2015, the study estimated a high 49% incidence of such misses in south Asia and 57% in western Africa.
With the disease having the capacity to reduce the life years of a child and harming her growth in the early-age years—the timespan in which a person is most likely to be engaged in acquiring education which marks the defining period of her physical growth—the group of researchers have rightly called for global healthcare leaders and policymakers to step up intervention to make detection more widespread and prevent the cancer burden from growing. While the problem of undiagnosed cancer cases is acute in undeveloped and undernourished economies, where appropriate healthcare is often missing, the crisis is further compounded by the fact that endemic diseases like TB or malaria often lead to doctors misdiagnosing cancer as well.
The study thus highlights the need for a strengthening of the institutionalisation of cancer detection and treatment, making it more affordable and accessible to all, as well as greater and more accurate reporting of cancer cases through investments in national cancer registries—data stacks that not only give us the number of cancer patients but also allow us to track their treatment progress.