On November 21 2016, Megga Kandulu’s four-year-old son fell ill and she took her to a health centre. He tested negative for Malaria, but was prescribed injections for three days and Bactrim.
Four days later, they returned as he never improved.
“He was re-tested for Malaria and full blood count which showed his blood level was low. We were referred to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH), where Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, cancer of the blood cells was diagnosed. My son has been on treatment ever since,” says Kandulu.
Leukaemia is one of the common childhood cancers in Malawi according to the head of Paediatric Oncology at QECH, Dr George Chagaluka.
Others include Burkitt’s Lymphoma, Wilm’s Tumour and Kaposis Sarcoma.
“Burkitt’s Lymphoma mainly affects the lymphoid system and symptoms swelling in the jaw or abdomen. Leukaemia symptoms present are anaemia, nose bleeding or bone pains which worsen at night time.
“Those with Wilms Tumour present with passing bloody urine, abdominal swelling and at times, high blood pressure,” the doctor explains.
He says new cases of childhood cancer are rising; from about 50 in 2009 to 216 to date. Chagaluka says bed space is becoming a problem at the Sobo Paediactric Oncology Ward as a result.
“We intend to go out to various districts and put up structures to treat patients because here we are restricted by space. We have 25 beds for in-patients, but the number of patients is more than that. We also have a daily cancer clinic for follow-ups,” says the doctor.
The Sobo Paediatric Oncology Ward was established in February 1997 with eight beds.
“We used to operate from the orthopaedic ward. That time we had only two beds just outside that ward. As the need for more space grew, we built a ward next to the orthopaedic ward with eight beds.
In 2009, we renovated the ward, expanding to the current 25 beds, with funding from Carlsberg Malawi and World Children Cancer (WCC),” he says.
Chagaluka cites a number of factors that contribute to the cause of childhood cancer.
“Genetic conditions can predispose an individual to cancer. Children with Down’s syndrome are prone to cancer. Leukaemia is very common in such children. Infections and malaria are also predisposers of cancer,” he says.
Persistent headaches associated with morning vomits; having enlarged lymph nodes; persistent fevers; recurrent anaemia requiring transfusions; bone pains and abnormal swelling on any body parts are some of the red flags for childhood cancers according to the doctor.
He points out that delay in presentation is one of the biggest challenges they face in treating cancer in children. n