We travelled up to Sylhet in Northern Bangladesh amidst the tea gardens, to see for ourselves the satellite operation there. I met Dr. Uddin, who is training for his masters. Although Dr. Uddin is not yet a fully qualified paediatric oncologist, he is the person that has the most knowledge about childhood cancer in Sylhet.
The children’s cancer ward is separated form the main children’s ward in what used to be the typhoid ward. As infectious diseases have increasingly come under control it has been allocated to children with cancer who need to be separated because the drugs lower their immune systems so they are very vulnerable to any infections.
Dr. Uddin told me that many parents take their children away as soon as they hear the diagnosis of cancer because they believe it untreatable, or cant afford the drugs, or believe that local homeopathic healers will help their child. He pointed out a girl with leukaemia ( the older girl on the right in the photo below), who is responding well to treatment and they are hopeful will recover fully. However her father had refused to contemplate paying for treatment because she was a girl – a not uncommon problem. The doctors had all chipped in from their own salaries to treat her because otherwise she would certainly have died.
He also told me that many qualified doctors still believed that childhood cancer was incurable and so gave parents poor advice. He said they were often amazed when he pointed out local cancer survivors running off to school! We have much to do to train and raise awareness amongst health professionals. Sick children will always see a doctor in Bangladesh so if we can train the doctors we can reach the children and their families with a message of hope.
However, many families are very poor and the drugs to treat cancer – though very cheap in UK terms – are just way beyond the means of these families. He said if we could only do one thing then he would ask for money for drugs – with that he could save lives immediately.
I came away sobered by the very poor conditions in the hospital. But also by the determination, commitment, and compassion, of the doctors we met, including Brigadier General Dr Miah, who has been seconded from the army to be the Hospital Director. He is doing everything that he can but in a hospital built for 500, still staffed for 500, with budgets for 500, but with over 2000 patients sharing beds at any one time there is a limit to what he can do without more help. This picture is repeated across Bangladesh – We have a big job to do which will take many years! But do it we absolutely must.
The programme in Bangladesh is funded with UK Aid from the UK government.