Alessandro Boyd, Gleaner Writer
In Jamaica, paediatric cancers and serious blood disorders are often fatal because of a shortage of health-care professionals and resources to diagnose and treat these children.
This shortage has led to the deaths of several children over the years.
One such child was three-year-old Xyhir Ince, who succumbed to trilateral retina blastoma last year.
After his birth in 2009, local health professionals suspected that Xyhir had a serious retinal disorder which might have been hereditary, but his mother was assured that it was nothing to worry about.
The successful treatment of the disease was dependent on the stage at which the illness was and how early it was detected.
It is as a result of cases such as this that the SickKids Foundation has set out to help improve the diagnoses and outcomes for children affected by paediatric cancer and serious blood disorders in the Caribbean.
The SickKids Foundation raises funds on behalf of The Hospital for Sick Children, one of the world's foremost paediatric health-care institutions and is the largest charitable funder of child-health research, learning and care in Canada.
50/50 SURVIVAL CHANCE
"When we began a process of assessing what was the current state of cancer care in the Caribbean, we found out that the survival rate for children in the Caribbean is about 50 per cent, whereas in Canada, it is between 80 to 90 per cent," Ted Garrard, CEO of the SickKids Foundation, told The Gleaner. "When we visited the Caribbean with medical leadership, it became very apparent that there were a number of capacity issues that were really standing in the way of these countries being able to effectively treat children with cancer and blood disorders."
Said Garrard: "When we started to look at one of the gaps, it was really having trained doctors, nurses, pathologists and professionals. We believe if they had the skill and training, they would be in a better position to diagnose and treat children."
Until recently, Jamaica did not have a single resident, fully trained paediatric oncologist among its population of more than 2.8 million. Last May, Dr Michelle Reece-Mills, who was trained at SickKids, returned to the island as the country's first and only fully trained physician specialising exclusively in children's cancer and blood disorders.
Garrard noted that there are many different forms and degrees of cancer and it is important to try and differentiate the types because they are treated differently - especially when it comes to adults and children as they require different dosages.
"Without having people who have the expertise or the technology to be able to differentiate the different types of cancer often leads to all the children being treated the same, and in some cases, that can result in overmedicating the children with chemotherapy and radiation, which can be toxic to their systems and, perhaps, lead to higher mortality rates," Garrard added.
Colin Hennigar, associate director for major gifts at the SickKids Foundation, also placed emphasis on the fact that a patient registry for paediatric oncology is necessary if improvements are to be made.
"We will also be working on a patient registry that will be a huge help towards providing a solid foundation for paediatric oncology in the Caribbean. It will help in registering statistics such as the age at which the children are diagnosed, the kind of cancer it is, the protocols that are being used, the treatment, the quality of life after treatment, what to do if the cancer comes back, and how we can prevent it from coming back," Hennigar told The Gleaner.
Hennigar visited Jamaica recently to meet with representatives of the Government and various organisations to raise awareness of the programme, which will be launched officially on March 19 on the island.
LIMITED ABILITY AND SERVICES
Chief medical officer at the Ministry of Health, Michael Coombs, also commented on the importance of the initiative.
"We face several challenges in Jamaica when it comes to paediatric cancer. We have very few specialists and that has limited our ability and services, which causes a lot of our children to have to be waiting a long time to get treatment and, of course, you have heard cases where children have had to go overseas to access care.
"The health ministry is quite happy and has made it quite clear that it is into partnerships because in our environment and context, we don't have all the resources to meet the health-care needs of our population," Coombs added.
The Caribbean SickKids Paediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Project will help build health-care capacity in Barbados, Jamaica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago and The Bahamas by training 50 health professionals, providing consultation and diagnostic expertise, and developing and expanding access to treatment and supportive care over the course of five years. The programme will cost a total of CDN$8 million.