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Paediatric Oncology

The University of Limpopo Trust (ULT) has been awarded a Discovery Foundation Rural Institutional Award to support the Pietersburg Hospital Department of Paediatric and Child Health in its endeavor to improve the health outcomes and quality of life of children with cancer in the province. 

Although the incidence of childhood cancer is sadly on the rise, through medical advancement in treatment and comprehensive care, childhood cancer is largely curable. According to population statistics, an estimated 2500 children as opposed to the current 1000 children should be diagnosed in South Africa – a severe under diagnosis with fatal consequences. Compounding the situation of late diagnosis is the delay in referral of children diagnosed with cancer to appropriate specialized treatment centres such as the Oncology Unit at Pietersburg/Mankweng Tertiary Hospital Complex. The lack of knowledge and cultural beliefs about childhood cancer amongst health care providers and caregivers are major contributing factors to delayed referral, delayed diagnosis and treatment as well as insufficient access to palliative care. In the absence of interventions to address these identified bottlenecks, Limpopo will continue losing children to cancer in an era of cancer being curable. 

The early diagnosis of cancer in children is pivotal to a positive prognosis and outcome. However, the presenting signs and symptoms are often non-specific and can mimic those of common childhood conditions such as viral infections. The index of suspicion tends to be low due to the relative rarity of malignancies in paediatric patients, and primary health care providers may have no prior experience in diagnosing a child with cancer and thus be unaware of the signs and symptoms. 

Raising awareness and educating both health care professionals and communities will certainly increase the number of children with cancer diagnosed before stage 3 and 4, and improve the effective and efficient referral of those diagnosed to the Paediatric Oncology Unit at the Pietersburg/Mankweng Tertiary Hospital Complex. 

The ULT will collaborate with CHOC SA to capacitate a cadre of Paediatric Oncology Champions from 5 Regional Hospitals in the province. The Champions will train and mentor frontline health care providers from district hospitals and primary health care facilities on the timeous and appropriate diagnosis and referral of children with cancer to the Paediatric Oncology Unit at Pietersburg Hospital. Capacitating Champions already in the employ of the health care system, as opposed to external Champions, will ensure the sustainability of gains made through the initiative.