24 February 2016

Uganda: Childhood Cancers on the Rise

Pediatric cancers are on the rise and infections such as HIV and the human papillomavirus (HPV) may have a lot to do with it, experts say.

According to statistics from the Kampala cancer registry, 145 children in every million, below 15 years, in Uganda are affected by cancer.

On the occasion of the international childhood cancer day on February 15, experts from Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI) reported that incidences of childhood cancer have increased from less than five per cent a decade ago to nine per cent currently. UCI alone receives 400 new child patients and offers treatment to about 6,000 children annually.

Although causes of childhood cancers are largely unknown, with only five per cent being tied to genetic abnormalities, ionizing radiation exposures and conditions such as Down's Syndrome, Dr Joyce Balagadde Kambugu, a pediatric oncologist at UCI, says infection-related cancers are on the increase among children.

"The commonest childhood cancer registered at UCI is Burkitt's lymphoma which is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. Malaria may also play a role in triggering the disease," she explains.

Other common cancers include acute leukemia, cancer of the kidney (Wilm's tumour) and Kaposi's sarcoma, which is linked to HIV. On the whole, the risk of childhood cancers is more among boys than girls.

Moreover, teenagers are also being diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by the HPV, hitherto seen among adults. Dr Sabrina Kitaka, a senior pediatrician with Mulago hospital, attributes this to the early sexual debut among adolescents.

She appeals to government to extend HPV vaccination to adolescents between 11 and 19 years, rather than only 10-year-old girls as currently is.


Debunking the myth that children with cancer have minor chances of survival, Dr Kambugu says the survival rate for children diagnosed with cancer in developed countries is estimated at more than 80 per cent (eight in 10 children). However, the cure rate in developing countries including Uganda is less, at only 30 per cent, (three in 10 children) because of late diagnosis.

"Many of the children we receive present with late-stage cancer which makes survival harder. Some are even treated for TB, brucellosis and malaria when it is actually cancer," she explains, adding that children respond faster to treatment compared to adults, when diagnosed early.

Moreover, improving cancer outcomes in India will depend on addressing shortfalls in awareness among families and medical workers. Dr Kitaka insists families should emphasize mandatory checkups so that cancer can be detected at an early stage and be cured.


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