Researchers call for better infection prevention for child cancer patients

In collaboration with the Press Association

Efforts need to be stepped up to reduce the number of children with cancer who die from infection, experts have said.

An analysis of death certificates in England and Wales has revealed that 82 child cancer patients died from an infection between 2003 and 2005, the BBC reports.

In five per cent of deaths in children with tumours, the cause of death was a serious infection and not the disease itself.

People who are undergoing cancer treatment are particularly at risk from infection because the aggressive chemotherapy can increase their susceptibility to other illnesses.

And in the case of blood cancers - such as leukaemia - the risk is even greater because the disease affects the production of white blood cells, which are a key component of the body's immune response.

Twenty-five per cent of deaths involving blood cancers in under 15s were due to infection.

Researchers at St George's University of London said that many of the deaths recorded in the study might have been prevented if better strategies had been in place to reduce, diagnose and treat infections.

They also pointed out that the true figures for infection-related death may be even greater than reported as they only had access to limited data.

Study leader Dr Jessica Bate, who is a clinical lecturer in child health at the university, told the BBC that survival rates for childhood cancer have greatly improved in recent decades and that the majority of children now survive.

However, she noted: "That's great, but what we don't want is that they die from infections because that's something we should be able to do something about.

"The thing we need to think about in the future is whether we diagnose them properly. And the big thing that came out was fungal infections and that's an area where we really need to improve how we diagnose them and how we treat them," Dr Bate concluded.

Commenting on the findings, which appear in the journal Pediatric Blood and Cancer, Liz Baker, Cancer Research UK's senior science information officer, said that "incredible progress" has been made in the treatment of children's cancer.

"Sadly, these treatments can sometimes weaken the immune system.

"Targeted therapies with fewer side effects on the immune system and preventative strategies in hospitals will help to reduce this problem."