By Morgan Adderley
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Bahamas faces a massive uphill battle to improve survival rates for children with cancer and other auto-immune diseases.
Complicating the problem is the fact that 87 percent of the Princess Margaret Hospital’s children’s wards have been closed since Hurricane Matthew in 2016 — forcing patients to wait in the accident and emergency department for days for a bed in its only operational paediatric ward.
Compared with children in the US and Canada, Bahamian children – and those in other Caribbean countries – could be as much as 50 percent more likely to die from cancers which children in developed countries survive.
Health Minister Duane Sands yesterday conceded the Bahamas has “much to do” in improving survival rates, noting it is only now that the country is gathering robust data on the issue.
In 2013, University of Toronto Professor of Paediatrics Dr Upton Allen launched an initiative to improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and blood disorders in Caribbean children.
Known as the Caribbean-SickKids Paediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Project, the programme focuses on six countries in the region — including the Bahamas, Barbados, and Jamaica. Dr Allen serves as co-chair of the project.
“If a child is born with leukaemia in Canada, it is believed they have between an 80 to 90 percent chance of surviving the disease,” Dr Allen told Global News Canada in an interview leading up to the project’s launch.
“If that same child is born in Kingston, Jamaica, they have about a 50 percent survival rate. And if that child is diagnosed in any of the other Caribbean countries, they have less than a 50 per cent chance of surviving the disease.”
Dr Allen has declined to speak to The Tribune to discuss his findings.
While Dr Sands did not provide an exact figure regarding the survival rate for children with cancer in the Bahamas, he told The Tribune yesterday the issue of child cancer survival rates here had many aspects.
“We have only one paediatric haematologist/oncologist and serious infrastructural challenges to optimal paediatric cancer care especially the management of leukaemias,” he said.
“Many of these are treated collaboratively with other institutions. While there is yeoman’s efforts... we have much to do.
“... Delays in diagnosis; availability of diagnostic and therapeutic options, especially newer and more expensive modalities; cultural reluctance to certain treatments and access challenges”.
Noting the fact that the SickKids project was launched in 2013, Dr Sands was asked if he thinks any strides have been made in improving cancer survival rates in the last few years.
“Not really,” he replied.
However, he noted there is a discrepancy between public and private patient outcomes — “a problem that is an embarrassing national reality”, he said.
“The Sanigest report confirms mortality rates for public patients are significantly higher than private patients across almost all diagnoses,” Dr Sands added.
Furthermore, according to the SickKids Project website, these diseases are often fatal because of this shortage of health-care professionals and resources.
This means that some children across the region are not diagnosed until it is too late to save them. Additionally, those who are diagnosed when the disease is still in the early stages often have difficulty accessing the treatment they need.
When asked if this is the case for the Bahamas, Dr Sands noted it is “probably true”.
However, he added although it is yet to be finalized, the Bahamas is crafting a relationship with Johns Hopkins University hospital and as this developed patient treatment and survival rates should improve.
Furthermore, a cancer registry “to get robust data on cancer incidences and outcomes” was established last month.
“The registry is up and running. It is in the Marcus Cooper building on Village Road. It is staffed, it has been a long time coming but it is actually running,” Dr Sands said.