Paediatrician says 90 per cent of children diagnosed with leukaemia in North Queensland are now cured

Dr Vana Sabesan at Townsville Hospital

A Townsville paediatrician says the cure rate for children diagnosed with leukaemia has hit 90 per cent in North Queensland.

Dr Vana Sabesan is a consultant paediatrician at the Townsville Hospital, where she helped set up a specialist care unit for paediatric oncology in 2007.

Speaking during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Dr Sabesan told the ABC that the treatment success rate had increased significantly in the past 60 years.

“We call it individualised treatment. We don’t treat every single child with leukaemia as the same,” she said.

“We treat them individually depending on what risk, what type of abnormality they have and how well they respond to the early treatment.

“We’re able to cause minimal side effects but much better outcomes for those kids, so it’s changed significantly.”

Dr Sabesan said the number of children diagnosed with cancer in Townsville was increasing due to population growth, but the national figure remained steady at around 950 a year.

She said leukaemia was the most common form of childhood cancer and treatment took up to 2.5 years, or longer if there were complications.

Dr Sabesan said the establishment of a stand alone paediatric oncology day unit at Townsville Hospital meant children being treated for cancer were no longer exposed to risk of infection from other patients.

“These children’s immune systems are very suppressed during therapy so we really need to protect them from other children on the ward,” she said.

“(Now we have) our new beautiful bright place where they can have the treatment and they have all the other facilities including an iChill room where they can play electronic media.”

The unit has a shared care model with the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, where most children undergo their initial diagnosis and treatment before returning to Townsville for follow up treatment.

“It’s very daunting for the family when they walk through the door (but) we are here to support them,” Dr Sabesan said.

“When they are ready to come back (to Townsville) we introduce our team through video conferencing so they know what to expect … meeting us beforehand and where to go if the child gets sick — that reassures them.”

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