Accessibility of Pediatric Cancer Treatments in the Philippines

Article written by Christine Marianne Dapal

The development of cancer in children is very rare compared to adults and most of the time, there is no known underlying cause for the development of their cancer. In addition, pediatric cancer may behave very differently from adult cancers, even if they start in the same part of the body. Unlike many cancers in adults, childhood cancers are not strongly linked to lifestyle or environmental risk factors and only a small number of childhood cancers are caused by DNA changes that are passed from parents to their child (American Cancer Society, n.d.). For these reasons, their treatments require the attention of medical doctors with a subspecialty in pediatric oncology, a niche area of specialization in the Philippines as they specialize both in pediatrics and oncology, along with other health specialists. The country has over 7,100 islands, with a combined population of more than 100 million. According to an article by Dr. Lecciones, there are only about 39 pediatric oncologists in the entire country, and many of them are in or near the capital city (Lecciones, n.d.).

Lack of medical doctors and inaccessibility of healthcare are some of the longstanding problems of the Philippines. Urban centers are saturated with doctors, especially NCR, while rural areas barely have doctors and there are no practicing consultants at all for those who require specialized care. Most of the far flung communities don’t have access at all to healthcare, hence people residing here rely heavily on natural remedies for their ailments. Consulting for serious ailments are usually put off until the conditions get worse where treatment is too late already.

Due to the inaccessibility of healthcare in rural areas, patients in dire need of treatment travel far into the cities, pediatric cancer patients are especially affected by this. Cancer patients are experiencing severe symptoms and weakness, making them unfit for long travels. According to the University of the Philippines Manila, about 3,000 new cases of pediatric cancer in the country are reported every year and of this, about half are leukemia (UP Media and Public Relations Office, 2020). Children with leukemia are immunocompromised and prone to contracting infections. Travelling great distances is very disadvantageous for them, as this can worsen their conditions. Especially now with the prevalence of COVID-19 putting them at a greater risk of contracting it.

In the Philippines, two-thirds of children with cancer are diagnosed at advanced stages, and abandonment of treatment is high at 80% with survival rate of less than 20%. This is very far from the 80% to 90% survival rate in developed countries. There are alot of factors contributing to the dismal chance of survival from cancer in children. The greatest factors at play are poverty, poor access to quality healthcare, and delayed detection of cancer. Obstacles to early detection and effective management include: 1) subtle signs and symptoms are not recognized promptly by frontline physicians at the primary levels of care; 2) patients and/or parents delay medical consultations, or when diagnosed will not opt for treatment, and; 3) for those who seek medical attention, there is no appropriate cancer treatment facility in the locality. Only one in five of pediatric cancer patients receive gold standard treatment, and mostly as paying patients because of the highly privatized medical care in the Philippines (Lecciones, n.d.).

It is already very difficult to fight cancer at such a young age, the least we could do is make their treatments easier to obtain and ease their suffering even just slightly. As mere citizens of the country, our collective voices are enough to raise awareness and demand an appropriate and urgent action from the government. Children suffering from cancer and those that are still undetected from all over the Philippines go through unnecessary and unfair hardships because of the inaccessibility of their much needed medical care. A lot of things are necessary to be changed with the current healthcare delivery system of the country. It is about time that we start demanding firmly the realization of these necessary changes.

References:

American Cancer Society. (n.d.). What are the differences between cancers in adults and children? https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-in-children/differences-adults-children.html#references

Lecciones, J. A. (n.d.). The Global Improvement of Childhood Cancer Care in the Philippines. Cancer Control. https://www.cancercontrol.info/cc2015/the-global-improvement-of-childhood-cancer-care-in-the-philippines/

University of the Philippines Media and Public Relations Office. (2020, September 3). UP webinar to focus on case of a child battling COVID-19 and cancer. University of the Philippines. https://www.up.edu.ph/up-webinar-to-focus-on-case-of-a-child-battling-covid-19-and-cancer/

Inspiring hope, one pediatric patient at a time. #ForTheKids!

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