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Addressing the Burden of Childhood Cancers Globally: Finding a Ray of Hope


Recent advances in imaging, treatment, quality assurance and nutritional support are improving the chances of children with cancer. (Photo: S. Vichare/IAEA)

Every year, an estimated 400 000 children worldwide develop cancer – only half of whom are ever diagnosed. Most of them live in low- and middle-income countries and, at best, 30 per cent will be cured. The needless suffering that these children endure is compounded by malnutrition, misdiagnoses, inaccessible treatments and a lack of specialized health professionals. 

“The IAEA is working to remedy this reality and deliver the care that these children deserve,” said Najat Mokhtar, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, in her opening remarks at a side event on the Battle against Childhood Cancer: Finding a Ray of Hope, during the 67th regular session of the IAEA General Conference. “The IAEA has leveraged scientific expertise, good will and opportunity throughout the entire continuum of care to strengthen the capacities of its Member States – giving them and their children a fighting chance against cancer,” she said. 

Sidney Chahonyo’s story was a vivid reminder of what the IAEA’s efforts mean for patients like him around the globe. At age 19, just as he was about to start university, Chahonyo began experiencing headaches and nosebleeds. Their increasing frequency and intensity – along with the onset of hearing loss – prompted him to seek medical care. After six frustrating months of visits to numerous clinics and hospitals only to be misdiagnosed repeatedly, he finally received a diagnosis of nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a cancer affecting the tissues connecting the back of his nose to the back of his mouth. With this diagnosis, he immediately underwent treatment. Today, the 37-year-old cancer survivor advocates for change as the Executive Director of Hope for Cancer Kids, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing support, resources and hope to families affected by childhood cancer in Kenya. “What I want is for every child around the world to have the same chance I had to beat cancer,” Chahonyo said. 

Sidney Chahonyo, Executive Director of Hope for Cancer Kids, shares his personal story of surviving childhood cancer. (Photo: S. Vichare/IAEA) 

In high-income countries nearly all patients have access to radiotherapy. In middle-income countries fewer than 60 percent do. In low-income countries, only one in ten people has access to this life-saving treatment. The IAEA’s flagship cancer initiative Rays of Hope: Cancer Care for All sets out to improve that by supporting the establishment and expansion of radiotherapy services around the world.

The side event spotlighted the role of radiation medicine techniques and nutrition in managing childhood cancers. Focusing on medulloblastoma – the most common malignant brain tumour in children – as a case study, IAEA experts described the care that patients receive. They underscored that recent advances in imaging, treatment, quality assurance and nutritional support have not only improved survival but also reduced the side effects that children experience. 

Child by child, the IAEA and its collaborators have been making strides toward equitable cancer care for all. Representatives of three of those collaborators – the WHO Global Initiative for Childhood Cancer, the Paediatric Radiation Oncology Society and the EuroSafe Imaging Working Group on paediatric imaging – underlined the importance of ensuring that care is both continuous and of a high quality.  

Yet, despite global progress, there are a number of challenges that still need to be addressed to close the gap between countries in terms of funding, equipment, infrastructure, education, training and human resources, to name but a few. 

As immense and as daunting as these challenges may seem, there is a clear way forward and concrete steps that can be taken. 

“With continued collaboration, scientific expertise, global will and commitment, we can tackle these challenges and meet the needs of children with cancer around the world," May Abdel-Wahab, Director of the IAEA’s Division of Human Health, underscored in her closing remarks. “We cannot fail to deliver," she said, “and we must never forget that access to care is a moral imperative and human right.” 

Najat Mokhtar, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, addresses the side event. (Photo: S. Vichare/IAEA)

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