Health experts have raised alarm about the growing incidence of childhood cancers in Nigeria even as they expressed fears that an epidemic is in the making.
The experts who spoke during a programme on Good Health Weekly on Vanguard Live warned that childhood cancer was already an emergency and could become more devastating except urgent measures are put in place to arrest the trend.
They stated that less than 2 out of 10 cancer cases in children aged 0-19 are diagnosed each year in the country, an indication that an epidemic of childhood cancer is imminent.
Confirming the surge in childhood cancers, a Consultant Oncologist and Specialist in Paediatric cancer at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH, Prof Edamisan Temiye, said major problems of cancer care in the country include lack of diagnosis, misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, high cost and abandonment of treatment.
"Cancer in children has been there as long as human beings have existed but what happened is that most of them were misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all," Temiye remarked.
Noting that most cancers in children kill very fast, usually within six months to one year and are therefore missed because doctors are not looking for them, Temiye said almost 99 percent of cancers in children kill very fast.
Temiye stressed that even though only about 0.5 percent of all cancers are childhood cancer, one child takes a lot from the family and childhood cancer has a better cure rate than adult cancer most of the time.
"In LUTH, we see five to seven cases in a month. When you diagnose a case it takes you about 10 months minimum to treat, it can be as long as three years. If blood cancer is involved the treatment period is three years for that child not one week.
So you see a cumulative of cases and when you finished that child's treatment for three years you have to follow up that child for another five years to give that child a clean bill of health, so it is three years you treat and five years from follow up. Challenges include problems of finance, late presentation, unavailability of modality equipment and drugs.
"However, despite the high burden of the disease, there is no supportive treatment plan for children with such terminal illnesses.
"While the National Health Insurance, NHIS, covers breast cancer, prostate cancer and cervical cancer, childhood cancer is not covered," he regretted.
According to Temiye, there is no political will to fight the childhood cancer scourge in the country.
He said a basic reason why there are low survival rates has to do with the high cost of treatment.
"In Nigeria, nothing about childhood cancer is covered by government, the family must pay for everything.
Another problem is that patients present to us late. When people present to us in the first and second stage of cancer most times you can cure it but 3rd stage it is difficult and 4th stage is a lost case. In 90 percent of cases 4th stage is lost case either for adult or for children.
"The late presentation and the issues of healthcare workers who don't have the full knowledge is one of the major problems why we are have low survival rates. The other problem is drugs. The prescriptions are not easily available, sometimes we miss treatment, because the medication is not available and occasionally we have cases of drug contamination."
In the views of Dr Nneka Nwaobbi, the challenges that children with cancer and their families face are financial and emotional trauma.
Nwaobbi who is the CEO/Founder, Children Living With cancer Foundation, CLWCF, observed that some parents still hide the fact that their child have cancer.
"We have parents who send such children to the village where their friends will not see them because they are ashamed and hope the children die there.
"Sometimes the family structure is broken down completely especially when one parent has to stay in the hospital with the child and the other stays home, that family could be broken completely, except there are very strong family values and the parents are together in whatever they do for their child to get well.
"Then, of course, there are fake drugs everywhere in the country so even when there is money to buy the drugs, how sure is one that one is getting genuine medicines," she wondered.
Further, Nwaobbi noted that when a child has cancer it tears down the structure of that family.
"You see a little income earner become absolutely poor. You see the other children dropping out of school going to beg for food. The cost of taking care of cancer patient is extremely high.
"Now what happens in those developed countries is that they believe every child must survive no matter the condition.
"The government invests in taking care of them and the treatment for such diseases in those countries are free. All you need to do is to present the child to the hospital and the government but in Nigeria it is your business it is your child.
"There is need for government to show political will. Let us know that is childhood cancer is real and it is in Nigeria. Most families need support for care and treatments, " Nwaobii asserted