More cases of child cancer increase strain

22:57, May 07 2009

Five more children have been diagnosed with cancer at Wellington Hospital in the past week - leaving more families to face an uncertain future with local treatment services under threat of closure.

The capital's two child-cancer specialists husband and wife Christian Kratz and Mwe Mwe Chao are set to leave in August after less than 10 months in the job, which means new and complex patients will again have to travel to Auckland or Christchurch for treatment, splitting up their families for months at a time.

A national advisory group, which met last week to discuss whether to permanently downgrade Wellington Hospital to a secondary service, has yet to issue its recommendation. Wellington, one of only three tertiary (advanced) child-cancer services, serves the lower North Island.

Figures provided to The Dominion Post show 42 families had to travel to Auckland or Christchurch between December 2007 and October 2008 till the new specialists arrived.

Most made more than one trip. One teenager spent 11 months of one year in Auckland.

In an internal memo to staff, Capital and Coast chief executive Ken Whelan said the resignations of the two specialists "highlighted just how challenging it is to provide a comprehensive service such as paediatric oncology in a hospital the size of Wellington".

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However, Wellington had more new diagnoses than Canterbury for the past two years. There are usually two or three inpatients at any one time, and about 30 outpatients each week.

Numbers of new patients at both units fluctuate between 20 and 35 each year, but most patients need treatment of two years or more and require continuing followup.

Up to five children relapse each year on average, and four or five children with terminal-stage cancer have palliative care.

Last year the Central Region Child Cancer Foundation supported 161 families through its support groups for client families and bereaved families, while its counterpart in the South Island had about 107 families under its care.

Capital and Coast's child-health manager, Kaye Hudson, acknowledged there were "many similarities between the scale of activity in Wellington and Christchurch. This is one of the questions we have brought to the attention of the paediatric oncology steering group and we await any guidance they can provide".

Canterbury has had two specialists for about 10 years, while Wellington has struggled to attract and retain clinical staff. Paediatric oncology steering group chairman Scott McFarlane, from Auckland's Starship children's hospital, has previously said Wellington's downgrade was probably inevitable and he did "not know of any informed paediatric oncologists who would now take that job".

Olivia Utting, of Newlands, whose five-year-old son Elijah has needed two long stays in Christchurch for leukaemia treatment, said she was sad Wellington's future was in the hands of people "who don't know our families, our hospital, who don't want it to work and don't think it should be here".

"Yet their decision is going to affect my son and my family."

The Dominion Post