15 November 2021

A new study has found that fewer children and young adults than expected were diagnosed with cancer during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic – and numbers of diagnoses following admission to intensive care increased.

The research, presented at the NCRI Festival last week, suggests COVID-19 has had a detrimental effect on early diagnosis of cancer in children and young people in England.

Dr Defne Saatci from the University of Oxford, who presented the study, said: “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.”

Dr Saatci and her colleagues used an English general practice database called QResearch to study the numbers of different cancers diagnosed in children and young adults up to the age of 25 between 1 February and 15 August 2020.

They compared the number of diagnoses with the same period in the previous three years. They also looked at the length of time before treatment started after diagnosi,s and whether patients were diagnosed after being admitted to intensive care.

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, 380 patients were diagnosed with a brain tumour, lymphoma, leukaemia, sarcoma or renal tumour – about 17% lower than in previous years. Lymphoma diagnoses were down 28% compared to previous years.

While the average time between diagnosis and the start of treatment was slightly shorter during the first COVID-19 wave, the researchers found that children were more than twice as likely to be admitted to intensive care before their cancer was diagnosed.

Lead researcher Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox, of the University of Oxford, said: “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 diagnoses of cancer in children and young people back on track as quickly as possible.”

Dr Saatci and her colleagues are now planning to study the impact of the subsequent waves of COVID-19 on diagnosis of childhood cancer in England.

Source: Abstract: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer diagnostic pathways in children, teenagers and young adults: a cohort study in England. NCRI Conference 11 November 2021

Link: https://abstracts.ncri.org.uk/abstract/the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-cancer-diagnostic-pathways-in-children-teenagers-and-young-adults-a-cohort-study-in-england/

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