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Increasing cancer cases in children worry experts

By John Agaba

Added 28th June 2016 09:45 PM

Burkitt’s lymphoma or cancer of the lymphatic system, which attacks the lymph nodes is the commonest cancer in children

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(L-R) Gerald Mutungi, Vice chairperson Parliamentary Forum on NCD’s Rosemary Nyakikongoro and Dr. Noleb Mugisha interact during the meeting. Photo by Godiver Asege

Burkitt’s lymphoma or cancer of the lymphatic system, which attacks the lymph nodes is the commonest cancer in children

The number of children diagnosed with cancer worried experts yesterday, after figures indicated incidences had grown by over a half in the last five years.

In 2010, hospital admissions for paediatric cancer cases stood at about 700 in the country, but numbers doubled to over 1500 today, said the head of comprehensive community cancer programme at the Uganda Cancer institute, Dr. Noleb Mugisha.

Burkitt’s lymphoma or cancer of the lymphatic system, which attacks the lymph nodes causing swelling of cheeks and is related to the Epstein–Barr virus, is the commonest cancer in children.

The dreaded infection is closely followed by blood cancer leukaemia and cancer of the kidney and Kaposi’s sarcoma related to HIV.

Unlike in adults, where a combination of risk factors, including alcohol use and physical inactivity and consumption of very fatty foods, can trigger the disease, genetic factors (leukaemia) and infections (Burkitt’s lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma) are the main drivers of cancer in toddlers.

The doctor said the disease was “hard to diagnose until it is in advanced stage” because of “not so many clear cut symptoms”, but called parents to seek immediate medical attention should children refuse to eat, develop an abnormal weight loss, and suddenly start to slur in their speech when they had started speaking.

At the annual Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) symposium at Hotel Africana in Kampala last week, experts were apprehensive and said Government needed to adopt major policies to contain a rise in the general NCD prevalence.

They asked the state to fast-track a policy on alcohol production and consumption (excessive consumption of alcohol is a “causal factor” in over eight different cancers) and another on “proper feeding habits.”

Mugisha said habits like: mothers ‘spitting’ chewed food into their toddlers’ mouths and packing of ‘fast foods’ for minors or leaving them in smoke-filled kitchens or exposing them to second hand smoking, also facilitated the development of cancer and other NCDs in infants.

Dr. Gerald Mutungi, the head of non-communicable diseases at the Ugandan health ministry, said about 15000 cases (general population) are registered every year at health facilities with the disease.

A 2015 report indicates the number of new prostate cancer cases in Ugandan men increased between 1990 and 2013, up from 850 to 4,400. Among the leading cancers, the number of new cases of mouth cancer in men was the lowest at 230 in 2013, up from 120 in 1990.

During this same period, cervical cancer cases in women increased, from 2,000 to 3,400. Within the top 10 causes of cancer incidence for women, uterine cancer showed the lowest number of new cases at 360 in 2013, up from 210 in 1990.

But that is not all. Generally, there is an increment in NCDs. Diabetes and hypertension and, of course, cancer, were the commonest.

Mutungi said close to 24% of Uganda’s 34 million people were living with high blood pressure related to cardiovascular (heart) complications and haemorrhagic stroke and atrial fibrillation (irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate).

Practices like physical inactivity, eating of salt-rich diets associated with processed and fatty foods and misuse of alcohol and tobacco were related to the complication.

The challenge is further compounded by inadequate personnel with specialty to treat NCDs (the country has only about 10 cancer doctors; the same applies to heart specialists) an insufficient equipment and drugs for the diseases.

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