Cancer research centres say that more than half of child cancer patients delayed their visits during the pandemic which increased the spread of the disease.
A delay in treatment has led to an increase in the spread of cancer among child patients according to Shankara Cancer Research Centre. Childhood cancer was the fifth leading cause of death among children of five to 14 years of age in 2017.
Dr. Anand KC of Shri Shankara Cancer Research Center, Bangalore said, “Before the pandemic, we used to have 10 to 12 admissions in the child cancer ward. After the pandemic number of child patients came down drastically by 50 percent. Due to the lockdown and fear of contracting the coronavirus, child cancer patients reduced the number of visits for screening or treatment. The patients who delayed their treatment or new patients who ignored initial symptoms have come with advanced cancer.”
Dr Rajiv Vijay Kumar, Medical Oncologist, from RR Nagar, Bengaluru said, “After Covid19, child cancer patients visiting for consultation has drastically come down by 20 to 30 percent. Number of new admissions and visits for chemotherapy, screening have also gone down. Because of the delay in treatment during Covid19, disease of these patients has progressed.”
A global modeling study projected that 51,100 cancer surgeries were postponed in India during the 12 weeks of lockdown. Dr. Anand added, “Out of the 125 children cancer patients, we treated, 40 of them contracted Covid-19. Their parents were more worried and stressed out about Covid-19. They also had fear that the cancer would spread due to this delay in treatment. For some patients, cancer treatment was delayed by two weeks till the point they recovered from the Covid-19.”
Dinesh Kumar, father of a child cancer patient said, “My child’s education was continuing online after the Covid-19. But now the school has stopped online education and my son again can’t learn anything. We have requested online classes but the school refused to do it.”
Covid-19 has impacted academic and recreational activities which were conducted by hospitals and NGOs for children. NGO Samiksha’s Center in Bangalore which used to help child cancer patients in Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology and Shankara Cancer Hospital is closed after the pandemic. Samiksha could reach up to only 350 cancer patients after March 2021 compared to 1,568 students in March 2020. Samiksha Foundation co-ordinator Valli Narasimha said, “Due to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, we had to suspend our work at the hospitals, so children’s access to us and our access to them was curtailed.”
It has impacted the funding of various NGOs, too. Manager of Charity Trust of Shankara Cancer Hospital Rama Ramamurthy said, “Our fundraising has come down by 30 to 40 percent due to Covid-19.”
Dr. Anand added “India is considered as a child cancer capital. Due to the lack of knowledge or awareness, the cure rate in India is approximately 50 to 60 percent. After the pandemic, it might have worsened.” He added, “The worldwide cure rate for child cancer patients is 90 to 95 percent due to early diagnosis and better infrastructure. The facilities available in India and also in Karnataka are very few. In Karnataka, only three cities have cancer treatment. Children need to be relocated from their village to these three cities. There is also a loss of job for parents. So almost 20 percent of the parents stop the treatment. It is called treatment refusal and abandon.”
Dinesh Kumar added, “My son and mother, both are cancer patients. I do not belong to ‘Below Poverty Line’ category families. I have to bear all the expenses on my own. We also had to take care of social distancing and immunity after the pandemic came. One more problem that we faced after the pandemic is that before every scanning for cancer, we had to go through the Covid-19 test and wait for the results.”
Children aged 12 and above have been enrolled for Pfizer and Moderna for vaccine testing. Vaccination of patients with co-morbidities has started in India but it’s not yet approved for children with co-morbidities. Dr. Anand added, “Till now there is no particular study or data available about child cancer patients’ vaccination, hence we have not recommended any of the children to take the vaccine.”