A study showed that in England, fewer children and young adults with cancer were diagnosed during the COVID pandemic. It also revealed that children with cancer who were diagnosed during the first wave of the pandemic were more likely to have been admitted to intensive care before their diagnosis.
New research presented at the National Cancer Research Institute festival suggests that COVID-19 has had a detrimental effect on the early diagnosis of cancer in children and young people. Dr Defne Saatci, at the University of Oxford, commented: “Spotting cancer early and starting treatment promptly gives children and young people the best chance of surviving. We already know that the COVID-19 pandemic led to worrying delays in diagnosis and treatment for many adults with cancer, so we wanted to understand how the pandemic affected children’s cancer services.”
Diagnosing cancer during a pandemic
Dr Saatci and her team used a general practice database called QResearch to study the different cancers diagnosed in children and young adults up to the age of 25 between 1 February and 15 August 2020 – the first wave of the COVID pandemic. They compared this data with diagnoses in the same period of the three preceding pre-pandemic years. The time between diagnosis and treatment start date and whether young adults and children with cancer were admitted to intensive care was also considered.
Researchers found that 380 patients were diagnosed with a brain tumour, lymphoma, leukaemia, sarcoma, or renal tumour in the first wave. This is around 17% lower than in previous years. Furthermore, the average time between diagnosis and treatment were slightly shorter during the first COVID-19 wave, but children with cancer were two times more likely to be admitted to intensive care before their diagnosis.
Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox, Lead researcher at the University of Oxford, commented: “We found that more children were admitted to intensive care before their cancer diagnosis during the pandemic. A possible explanation is that these children waited longer to see a doctor and therefore may have been more unwell at the time of their diagnosis. Together with the lower numbers of cancer diagnoses in the first wave, this study suggests COVID-19 may have had a serious impact on early diagnosis in this group of patients. As we recover from the pandemic, it’s vital that we get diagnosis of cancer in children and young people back on track as quickly as possible.”
Dr Saatci and her colleagues plan to study the impact of the following waves of COVID-19 on the diagnosis of children with cancer.
“We know that the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating effect on the health service as a whole and that cancer diagnosis in adults has suffered. This study suggests that the pathway for diagnosis of cancer in children and young people has also been affected, and we need to better understand the reasons, which will be multi-factorial.
“The health service now needs to prepare for the possibility of a post-COVID rise in children and young people who need cancer treatment. There are good treatments available for the majority of children and young people with cancer, but early diagnosis is vital. Young people and parents who are worried about any symptoms should speak to a doctor promptly.” commented Pamela Kearns, member of the NCRI Children’s Group, Professor of Clinical Paediatric Oncology at the University of Birmingham, UK, and was not involved with the study.