Antara Raisa Chowdhury, a six-year-old from Dhaka was excited about the Friday morning picnic. She woke up earlier than usual, got dressed, and was the first to arrive at the venue. Just like any other child of her age, the thought of a fun day filled with interesting activities filled her with joy.
But Antara is not like other normal children. Diagnosed with cancer on February 11, 2011, she has a big battle to fight. Looking at her beaming smile as she shook hands with the doctors, it is hard to believe that this deadly disease that attacks 8000 children every year, is a haunting presence in her life. Yet Antara likes to see the bright side of everything: “I have made some friends at the hospital, and they are very nice to me” she says brightly.
On Friday, June 20, around 50 children gathered with their families at the Canadian Club, Baridhara, for a picnic with lots of games, art activities and a clown to entertain the guests but in reality it was not an ordinary picnic. It was arranged by World Child Cancer for children diagnosed with cancer and the medical professionals aiding them at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU). BSMMU has formed a partnership with British Columbia Children's Hospital in Vancouver, Canada and University College London Hospital, UK. The head of the project is Prof Afiqul Islam, Chair of the department of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, BSMMU. This twinning partnership, with funding from the UK government, through DFID, helps to train local physicians and nurses in cancer treatment.
Nabila Ulfat Diya, is a grade I student, from Tongi, who was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2008. Yet thanks to timely treatment she has been able to fight this deadly disease. “She is one of the patients who improved the most under this programme,” says Barna Shohag, data manager, dept of Pediatric Hematology Oncology, BSMMU. The tests for cancer which take place every few months have been negative after a series of treatments Diya has received from the BSMMU. There are many other children like Diya whose condition has improved enough for them to return to school and most importantly, lead a normal life.
Each child has a different story but there is one thing they have in common, life had dealt a cruel blow on them. They were thrown in a whirlpool of medical terms they could not comprehend, and a sickness that they did not deserve. Crayons were replaced by IV drips, and playgrounds were replaced by hospitals. When the situation got worse, it meant months of lying in hospital, missing school, friends, life. But for all these children there has always been hope, which is why, the doctors working in this project, are so keen on encouraging all the families of the patients to continue their children's treatment by organising various events.
“The key message for everyone is that childhood cancer is curable, as many families think that it is hopeless to treat a child with cancer,” says Dr Megan Doherty, Palliative Care Consultant of the project. “Often families become reluctant to treat their children because they have the misconception that childhood cancer leads to an inevitable death,” adds Dr Megan. Most patients come from underprivileged families who are unable to afford even the transportation fare to Dhaka, let alone long term medication and treatment.
It takes around 700,000 BDT to treat a child with cancer over a 3 year period. About 20 percent of the children diagnosed with cancer abandon their treatment halfway at the very beginning because the families cannot afford it even with the subsidies available. According to Prof Tim Eden, Medical Trustee, World Child Cancer, the biggest obstacle to child cancer treatment in Bangladesh is the extreme poverty. Lack of knowledge and education is a by-product of poverty which often leads to the parents making wrong decisions about their children.
About 1100 children have been diagnosed with cancer by the BSMMU so far but less than half of them are still continuing their treatment. Majority of the children with cancer in Bangladesh do not get appropriate treatment. Only 5 percent of these children are being cured. With prompt and effective treatment, 80 percent of these children could be have been cured.
“Our main objective is to empower local people so that they can stand on their feet in the long term,” says Prof Eden. He appreciates Bangladesh's work in improving treatment and medical care compared to other developing nations, and considers Bangladesh to be leading in this aspect among other Asian countries. He also encourages the need for patients to maintain a normal lifestyle after being diagnosed.
The twinning project has made a significant impact within a short span of time. The estimated survival rate increased from less than 40 percent to 48 percent. The diagnosis rate has now increased from around 3 percent to 7 percent. Seven internal workshops for doctors and nurses have been held and more are being planned this year. Drug costs have been subsidised for over 250 patients.
Satellite projects, moreover, are now being initiated in Dhaka Medical College, National Institute of Cancer Research and Hospital (NICRH), Sylhet Medical College, Sylhet and Chittagong Medical College Chittagong. The aim is to provide treatment closer to home so that patients do not have to travel all the way to Dhaka every time a crisis arises.
The project aims to achieve increased survival rates at BSMMU and reduced refusal and abandonment of treatment due to financial problems. It aspires to raise awareness of childhood cancer, symptoms and curability. Moreover, Dr Doherty intends to make this event an annual programme hosted by the Canadian Club. She considered this event a big success. The children were able to forget their cruel illness and experience an entire day of fun. The hospital staff, too, were awarded for their hard work and dedication. “These individuals work very hard to help ensure that the children get the best possible treatment there is and it is important that they feel valued for their work,” said Dr Doherty.
The project, however, needs funding to be able to expand further and to ensure the best treatment for these children. Anybody interested to donate to this project is requested to contact Dr Afiqul Islam at +8801755593273.