In Kenya, where the survival rate of children with cancer is 10 per cent, the use of non-conventional therapy has been linked to delays in diagnosis and treatment, and hence poor recovery outcomes.
According to Dr Festus Njuguna, a paediatric oncologist at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (MTRH) in Eldoret, more than half of families with children suffering from cancer, sought alternative treatment before visiting a conventional health facility.
Alternative therapies ranging from spiritual help, herbalists and traditional healers are relied upon for the hope they extend to families who believe that conventional treatment cannot cure their sick children.
“A lot of time is lost when families use alternative treatment. They only seek medical advice when the child’s condition has deteriorated, and even then, they take time to decide whether to start treatment for the sick child or not.
“It’s difficult to tell how many children have died from using alternative treatment but we know it is a factor that keeps patients from coming to hospital,” says Dr Njuguna.
While alternative therapies may not affect the immune system, the chemical contents of herbal therapies are not always known, and may interfere with body functions in unpredictable ways.
CHEAPER, EASILY ACCESSIBLE
Families often turn to alternative treatments recommended by others, considering them more effective, easily accessible, cheaper and better than conventional medicine in as far as they offer hope for cure.
Some parents also abandon conventional treatment for their children to seek alternative treatment, yet about four in five children who stop conventional treatment die.
Failure by medics to make correct diagnosis due to lack of proper equipment in public health facilities, has also been blamed for delays in treatment.
Dr Njuguna thus suggests increased public health awareness campaigns on childhood cancer, its causes and treatment, as well as affordable and accessible treatment programmes for early diagnosis, treatment and support.
“We can restore hope in conventional treatment if more children survive conventional therapy and if the public is made aware of it,” says Dr Njuguna.
About 2,500 children in Kenya develop cancer-related complications every year, and one in ten survive. Globally, cancer of the white blood cells and brain tumours are leading childhood cancers, while non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney and bone marrow cancer are common in sub-Saharan Africa.
Signs of cancer in children include swellings, weakness, paleness, persistent illness and constant pains, regular vomiting, inability to walk properly, sudden weight loss, vision changes and frequent headaches.