Russia’s cancer children struggle for much-needed treatment

Around 14 children in Russia are diagnosed with cancer each day and only a few get the desperately needed treatment. Due to the lack of a medical infrastructure, the disease is among the main causes of toddler deaths.

Little Sonia from Russia’s North-Western city of Pskov is just like any happy six year old, but she has been diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors in her hometown at first thought it was just an allergy or hepatitis. When her mother found out the truth, she knew her child's only chance was hundreds of kilometers away in Moscow.

“Not only do we not have a hematological clinic in Pskov, but we also don't have the medical equipment and conditions to treat such patients,” Olga, Sonia’s mother, said. “When you first learn that your child is diagnosed with this disease, you don't know what it is and how to deal with it. And only when we came here, the doctors explained to us that it can be treated and that the treatment is tough – but it is not hopeless.”

Sonia was lucky – her mum was able to provide the bone marrow she needed for the treatment. Other children need to search beyond their families for a donor, but at the moment there is no bone marrow donor register in Russia.

“We turn abroad for help, but it costs around 20,000 euros and it takes up to three months to find one donor, so we lose time. In the end it may be too late, so it is a big problem,” says chief child oncologist Vladimir Polyakov.

An estimated 1500 children in Russia need bone marrow transplants every year, but only about a hundred get it. Most do not live long enough for treatment.

“The reason for this is the absence of specialized oncological and hematological clinics in the regions which could treat such patients, so that they would not have to cross the whole country to get help,” says cancer and blood specialist, Marina Persyantseva.

It is the poor medical infrastructure in the regions that prevents early diagnosis.

“Unfortunately the doctors cannot save children, not because it is impossible to do, but because – especially in the regions – there is a lack of medication. There is no proper oncological service at hand. There are no adequate diagnostics,” cancer and blood specialist Galina Novichkova says, adding, “I visited the town of Tver, the hospital there is in a building that was constructed in 1871. The walls on the outside are covered in mould, so can you imagine what it is like inside… It is all rotten and stinking. It is impossible to treat children there.”

Government money has started to become available with 11 billion roubles allocated to build a state-of-the art clinic in Moscow. It is hoped that it will double the amount of bone marrow transplants, but it is only a start. And then other children like Sonia could have their chance of a life out of the shadow of cancer.