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21 Oct, 2008 02:02

The bleak plight of child cancer victims

Health campaigners have hit out at the poor quality of cancer care for children in Russia and are demanding improvements to bring it up to international standards. The disease kills hundreds of children every year in the country, with the survival rate of

Despite some recent signs of improvement, campaigners and parents say the state of treatment remains extremely poor. Oksana Loguzova lost her child, Alisa, to cancer.

“First we went to the chief doctor at the local hospital,” she said. “She sent us to the district oncologist. The district oncologist sent us to the chief city oncologist. He also said he couldn’t help. We went to the children's hospice, but they didn't have the licence to give us the painkillers.”

The way little Alisa spent her last days remains the most painful memory in Oksana’s life.

The three-year-old was screaming in pain, as her mother and aunt scoured the city for morphine. Alisa died before she received the drugs.

Russia's leading patients’ rights expert says the country's system of palliative care is underdeveloped.

“In theory there does not need to be the presence of a child oncologist or even a general oncologist for painkillers to be prescribed. So what we have to blame here is how the system works in practice,” says Aleksey Starchenko from Patients’ Rights Protection League

However, Alisa’s case is unusual.

Four out of every five children who enter the Children’s Oncologist Centre in the Moscow region will leave it completely cured.

Advanced equipment has been installed and the latest treatment protocols from around the world are used.

Specialised government oncology programmes have seen funding increase rapidly.

But the doctors in the centre admit there is still a long way to go.

“The issue isn't just about treating the patient while he is in hospital. It is not just about diagnosing the illness. It is about the standard of general pediatric care. Only when all parts of the system are working does the treatment become efficient,” says Svetlana Varfolomeeva, Chief Children's Oncologist.

Charities have sprung up to help where the official state medical care is insufficient. Maria is a volunteer for Advita, one of Russia's oldest charities.

“In Russia foreign treatment protocols are used,” she explains. “But often the Ministry of Health does not import all the medicines in them. This is where we step in – importing medicines with our funds. We are also involved in getting more people to give blood for cancer patients.”

The problem is that, with financial constraints, and a healthcare system that is still in transition, it will be decades before the country catches up with the world's leaders in fighting child cancer. But it’s hoped that by recognising the problem, Russia might at least be better placed to begin to tackle it.

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