Today is World Cancer Day. And Uganda joins the rest of the world to celebrate the day, with a worrying report that 40 per cent of the children between one and 10 years die every year despite the fact that the childhood cancers can be cured if diagnosed and treated early.

Over the last two years, at least 30,284 cases of cancer in children were registered at the Uganda Cancer Institute (ICU), 70 per cent of these being Burkitt lymphoma, the commonest cancer in children, according to the spokesperson of the cancer institute, Ms Christine Namulindwa.

According to Dr Nixon Niyonzima, medical officer at the children’s ward at UCI, Burkitt’s lymphoma, the fastest growing cancer, manifests itself as jaw swellings and accounts for 70 per cent of new cases which he attributes to misdiagnosis.

“Most parents take the children to dentist when the children get jaw swellings thinking it’s a dental problem. By the time they realise it’s cancer, more likely it has spread to the other parts of the body like the brain, bone marrow, lungs and liver,” says Dr Niyonzima.

The other childhood cancers are leukemia (blood cell cancers) and cancers of the brain and central nervous system, accounting for at least 30-40 per cent of the cases registered at UCI.

Dr Fred Okuku, an oncologist (a doctor who specialises in the treatment of cancer patients using radiation therapy), says factors that trigger cancer in children usually differ from those that cause it in adults, such as smoking or exposure to environmental toxins.

“Unlike most other cancers whose cause is not particular, Burkitt’s lymphoma is caused by Epstein-barr virus, a potentially fatal and disfiguring malignancy,” says Dr Okuku.
Whilst not dismissing the risk factors, he also says there may be an increased risk of childhood cancer in children who have a genetic condition, or those who have had chemotherapy or radiation treatment for a prior cancer episode.
Unlike other diseases like malaria, Uganda does not have a national policy on cancer yet it has become a worldwide health challenge.

Stretched cancer institute
Only the Uganda Cancer Institute is fully equipped to screen the disease and yet it can only cover part of Kampala in its community screening, leaving the institute stretched beyond capacity with an inflow of patients from all over the country.

The 45 bed capacity facility caters for more than 5,000 cancer patients across the country. However, the director, Dr Jackson Orem, says the new block under construction, with an expected 200-bed capacity, is expected to decongest the facility and offer better services to the patients.

The biggest challenge is following up patients whose treatments go beyond a year.
Even though some significant funding has been channelled to combat the disease, Dr Orem said the burden of the disease keeps increasing as the number of new cancer cases increase day-by-day.

By Agatha Ayebazibwe, Daily Monitor

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