World Cancer Day 2023: Indian children with the disease are in dire straits; here is why

Children with cancer in India grapple with lack of awareness, adequate treatment and low survival rate

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Saturday 04 February 2023
World Cancer Day 2023: Indian children with the deadly disease are crying for help; here is why
Photo from iStock for representation Photo from iStock for representation

India does not have adequate awareness about the problem of cancer among children. It also does not have treatment facilities. This was proved just a day before World Cancer Day on February 3, when questions were answered about cancer in the Lok Sabha.

The four questions were on the increase in cases in India. They specifically referred to increase in breast and cervical cancer. None talked about the plight of children who deal with cancer.

The Centre’s own data shows that India’s young cancer patients between the ages of 0 and 14 have poor access to health care. 

Results of a survey published by the Indian Council of Medical Research in September 2022 shows that childhood cancers comprise four per cent of all reported cancers in the national cancer registry programme. 

Clearly, a lot has to be done to achieve the goal of this year’s theme for World Cancer Day which wants to “Close the Care Gap” in 2023.

These cancer patients face delayed diagnosis resulting in delayed treatment, incomplete treatment and therefore, low survival rate. As national health programmes and policies are focused on cancers in adults, the ICMR report suggested that specialised policy is developed to address childhood cancer.

The survey showed that the country has just half of the healthcare facilities needed to treat and take care of these children. For example, while only 41.6 per cent of the sampled tertiary level public hospitals in the country had a dedicated pediatric oncology department, 48.8 per cent of  private hospitals had these facilities.

The maximum (64 per cent) were available in charitable hospitals. Less than 50 per cent of the tertiary hospitals provided hospice care, play therapy and parental support groups and less than 35 per cent had provision for diagnostics such as Postrom Emission Tomography-Computerise Tomography, bone scan and MIBG scan.

Based on the data on the estimated number of incident cases of cancer in India for the year 2022, one in nine people are likely to develop cancer in their lifetime.

There is very little understanding on what causes cancer in children. Some chronic infections, such as HIV, Epstein-Barr virus and malaria, are risk factors for childhood cancer. While some 10 per cent of all children with cancer have a predisposition because of genetic factors, more research is needed to identify the triggers for the remaining.

India accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s childhood cancer burden according to the World Health Organisation. Most children with cancer suffer from leukemia (approximately 33 per cent) followed by brain tumors (around 20 per cent) and lymphomas (some 11 per cent).

Fewer children in India survive cancer compared to developed countries. While less than 30 per cent of cancer patients in India and other developing countries survive, the mortality is just around 20 per cent in developed countries. 

The situation of paediatric cancer across the globe is so dire that cancer in children has its very own International Childhood Cancer Day which is celebrated on February 15. Along with raising awareness of childhood cancer, the day also expresses support for children and adolescents with cancer, the survivors and their families.

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