Cape Town - Survival rates for children with cancer are significantly lower in South Africa than in developed countries because many get to hospital when the disease is already advanced, according to a study published in the South African Medical Journal this month.
The study also noted cancer deaths were more prevalent among black and coloured children.
Researchers said new strategies were needed urgently to improve childhood cancer awareness.
The study, conducted at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town and Universitas Hospital in the Free State, examined 3 241 cancer incidents in children under 15 years old between January 1987 and December 2011.
In the Western Cape, the annual incidence of childhood cancer has been estimated at 87.8/million, compared to 62.6/million in the Free State and between 33.4 and 47.2/million between 2003 and 2007 in Africa.
The five-year survival rate in the two hospitals included in the study was 53.8 percent. In the United States, the five-year survival rate of children is nearly 80 percent and in Europe the three-year survival rate for childhood cancer is 81 percent.
Researchers attributed the low survival rate in South Africa to limited resources, co-infections with diseases such as HIV, and malnutrition.
“Children from low-income countries are often malnourished when a malignancy is diagnosed,” the study read.
“Malnutrition in children with cancer renders them vulnerable to chemotherapy-related toxicity and infections, and ultimately increases the risk of death.”
Researchers suggested that malnutrition among black and coloured children in the Western Cape could explain the low survival rate for black children in the study.
They noted that research in 2002 indicated there was “a substantially higher prevalence of micro-nutrient deficiencies among disadvantaged black and coloured infants in urban communities in the Western Cape than in other groups”, which “may result in a worse outcome” for these children.
Limited places to access care in low-income areas, late referrals from primary health professionals and community health workers, parents and communities’ lack of knowledge about paediatric cancer all contribute to the low survival rate.
Researchers advocated creating awareness campaigns countrywide to facilitate earlier diagnosis among underprivileged children and improve the survival rate of childhood cancer patients.