COVID-19: More than 28,000 children died of cancer in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020

Travel restrictions mean children with cancer can’t seek hospital care in time

By Madhumita Paul
Published: Monday 16 August 2021

More than 28,000 children died from cancer in sub-Saharan Africa amid the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) regional office.

“We estimate that more than 28,000 children died of cancer in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020. This is truly heartbreaking as childhood cancers are curable if detected early and comprehensive care provided,” said Jean-Marie Dangou, non-communicable diseases programme coordinator, WHO regional office.

Daniel McKenzie, a board member of Childhood Cancer International, a non-profit, said:

“COVID-19 affected treatment of children with cancer as they need to travel a lot — every month for up to two-three years — to seek it. Travel restrictions meant that many failed to reach hospital on time.”

A significant backlog in screening and treatment for COVID-19 likely led to delayed diagnoses and treatment and a significant increase in the number of avoidable cancer deaths, according to Cancer Control 2020 Survey.  

According to the survey:

  • There was limited infrastructure, scarce cancer care centres and only a few established satellite cancer treatment centres in Ethiopia.
  • In Kenya, cancer facilities were open only for a few hours every day. It disrupted care for patients who needed to travel to urban areas for treatment.
  • In Nigeria, the pandemic made a significant impact on cancer care: Access to care was disrupted, cost for treatment and care rose and cancer screening activities were suspended

Cancer survival rate among children in Africa is around 20 per cent; it is over 80 per cent in high-income countries.

Early diagnosis improves chances of survival; WHO stressed that significant improvement can be made in the lives of children with cancer by identifying the disease early on and avoiding delays in care. 

As many as 1,200 children under 15 in Ghana are estimated to develop cancer annually

Only 20-30 per cent children receive cancer treatment in Ghana, mainly because of high costs of care. In Ghana, cancer treatment is not covered under the National Health Insurance Scheme.  The average cost to treat a child with cancer is about $1,000; it can go up to $7,000 for leukaemia.

A review of cancer clinical trials in Africa found that only 20 of 54 African countries surveyed hosted clinical trials for children with cancer. A majority of such trials were carried out only in four African countries: Egypt, South Africa, Algeria and Kenya.


In 2018, the WHO announced Global Initiative for Childhood Cancers, which aims to achieve a survival rate of 60 per cent among children with cancer. It aims to reduce suffering from cancer for all children by 2030.

Ghana, Morocco, Senegal and Zambia were selected to support its implementation.

But lack of data is a hindrance for addressing the burden of childhood cancer. To WHO has called for robust childhood cancer data systems for driving continuous improvements in the quality of care and informing policy decisions.

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