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Losing our Future Leaders to Childhood Cancer

“I thought cancer was only for adult, very old people. I never knew of a child having cancer until my son was diagnosed and died of cancer”.

“When our seven years old daughter was diagnosed with cancer, we couldn’t afford treatment. It is too expensive, so we brought her home. Unfortunately, she died, but she died knowing that we did the best we could.”

“We commute from Cape Coast at 4 am to Korle-Bu every time we have to come for chemotherapy treatment. The risk of travelling every day discouraged me, and we started using herbal medicines. My Child died two weeks after we stopped coming to the hospital.”

These are just three excerpts of the many uncomfortable conversations the writer had with parents of children with cancer. These families are not alone in this situation. There is the issue of awareness and the cost of treatment of childhood cancer in Ghana.

According to World Health Organization (WHO), 300 000 children are diagnosed with different types of cancer- leukemia, brain cancer, and lymphoma – each year. In the last decade, the survival rates for most types of cancer in children have improved in developed countries. Up to 80% of the patients survive, thanks to early diagnosis, timely treatment, and medicine advances. But most children who have cancer live in the developing world, where their survival rate is less than 25%. Bluntly put, children with cancer in Ghana have lower survival rates. 

Ghana is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Child’s Right. Article 24 stipulates that state parties recognize the Child’s right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health and facilities for treating illnesses and rehabilitation of health. But from all indications, this signatory is a mirage. Ghana has two hospitals- Korle-Bu and Komfo Anokye – that can provide comprehensive childhood cancer treatment, a few shared care centers, and five (5) trained paediatric oncologists. This is a disaster in waiting because 37% of our population is under fourteen (14), a vulnerable childhood cancer group. The World Child Cancer (an international charity organization) report indicates that there will be between one thousand and two hundred (1200) and one thousand and three hundred (1300) new childhood cancer cases to be recorded in the country. There is an urgent need for the government and stakeholders to provide comprehensive policies to support children’s treatment, care, and rehabilitation with cancer. 

The unaffordable cost of chemotherapy drugs and few radiotherapy facilities make treatment expensive. One possible relief for parents is to enrol in childhood cancer treatment on the Nation Health Insurance Scheme.

The problem of insufficient health care workers trained in paediatric cancer needs urgent attention. Some of the over eighty-eight (88) district hospitals government intend to build in the coming years must be dedicated solely to childhood cancer treatment. Travelling distance to the hospitals plays a more role in parents bringing their children for treatment. Imagine travelling over twelve (12) hours from the northern regions to the south for treatment.

The creation of public awareness must also incorporate advocacy in any policies intended so that society will not see childhood cancer as a spiritual sickness but a medical condition that can be treatable when diagnosed early. Public Health Awareness campaigns on breast cancer and some non-communicable diseases have yielded significant results over the years. It’s therefore not late to add childhood cancer to these campaigns.

By concerted action and promoting universal health coverage, every Child in Ghana can access high-quality care with the greatest likelihood of survival. We must give childhood cancer the needed attention now.

This opinion piece is to commemorate International Childhood Cancer Day, observed on the 15th of February.

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