Nearly half of all childhood cancer cases go undiagnosed

A boy lies on his mat for a full-body scan

A boy lies on his mat for a full-body scan

SOME 45% of children with cancer are left undiagnosed and untreated, according to an innovative study of the disease's global footprint among under-15s, published today.

Harvard researchers estimate that more than half of pediatric cancers are undiagnosed in Africa, South Central Asia and the Pacific Islands. In contrast, in North America and Europe only three per cent of cases remain undiagnosed.

Further, the team estimates that between 2015 and 2030 there will be 6.7 million new cases of childhood cancer worldwide.

A girl playing with a red balloon during a march to commemorate the International Day of the Child with Cancer, celebrated on February 15.

Accurate estimates are essential for setting health care priorities, and planning for effective diagnosis and treatment of all kids with cancer, Ward said in a journal news release.

Previous estimates have been based on records from cancer registries, but 60% of countries do not have these registries, meaning the estimates only cover a small proportion of the global population. The model was calibrated to data from public registries and adjusts for under-diagnosis due to weaknesses in national health systems.

"Health systems in low- and middle-income countries are clearly failing to meet the needs of children with cancer", said senior author Rifat Atun, a professor at Harvard University.

"While underdiagnosis has been acknowledged as a problem, this model provides specific estimates that have been lacking", he added. The number of new cases in this age group rose most years from 2010 onwards, even when the figures were adjusted to reflect the size of the population. But 92 percent of all new cases occur in low- and middle-income countries, more than previously thought, the researchers said. "The good news is that universal health coverage expansion, which a lot of countries have already committed themselves to, will help children access the health system", he said, although he stressed the need for investment in cancer registries so progress can be tracked.

Of these, almost three million will go undetected unless health systems improve rapidly. Strengthened health systems around the world, the authors note, would bring well-functioning healthcare facilities to provide "timely diagnosis, referral, and treatment" as well as expand cancer registration in countries that lack them.

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