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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 00:35 GMT
Child cancer rates 'increasing'
Research
Research is producing better treatments
Environmental factors may be to blame for an increase in rates of certain types of childhood cancer, scientists say.

Scientists from the Cancer Research Campaign discovered the increases after carrying out a detailed study into the incidence of children's cancer.

A team from the Department of Paediatric Oncology at Manchester University looked at the rates of children's cancer from 1954 to 1998.


Now that we know that the rate of children's cancer is creeping upwards, it is essential that we find out why

Professor Jillian Birch
They found that some of the commonest children's cancers, including brain tumours and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, have been gradually increasing over the last 45 years.

The average annual increase is between 1% and 3%.

The current rate of brain cancer is 36% higher than it was in the 1950s, while the rate of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia has also gone up by more than a third.

There were increases in some lesser known childhood cancers too, with germ cell tumours doubling in rate over the time period.

The results have prompted concerns that an environmental factor could be pushing rates up.

Brain cancer 'mystery'

Scientists do not know what this could be, but possible suspects include chemical pollution, lifestyle factors or infections.

The researchers analysed 4,306 cases of children's cancer.

All the children in the study were from the North West of England.

Team leader Professor Jillian Birch said: "Because childhood cancers are rare, we need to study trends over a very long period of time in order to detect changes in incidence.

"But now that we know that the rate of children's cancer is creeping upwards, it is essential that we find out why, so that we can come up with ways of countering the problem."

Professor Birch said that an infectious agent - perhaps a virus - was likely to be partly to blame for the increase in lymphoblastic leukaemia.

"We think that leukaemia in children may be the rare outcome of a common infection and that perhaps some aspect of modern-day living is increasing the chance that the infection will lead to leukaemia."

The increase in the incidence of brain cancer is more of a mystery.

US researchers also found an increase in the incidence of the disease, but believed that the rise was caused by improvements in diagnosis.

But the CRC scientists conducted a number of statistical tests, confirming that the UK increases were likely to be real and not caused by changes in medical practice.

Professor Birch said: "We've covered all bases by thoroughly checking whether the increases could have been caused by changes in the way the disease is reported.

"The rises are real and we now need to tackle the problem."

Survival rates

Diet, radioactivity or exposure to chemical pollutants have been suggested as possible factors in the development of children's cancer, but as yet there is little evidence to support the theories.

Professor Gordon McVie, CRC director general, said: "Survival rates have improved enormously for children's cancers, with more than 70% now successfully treated.

"But any increases in incidence, however small, are obviously worrying.

"It's important that we get to the bottom of what's causing these rises, so that we can start to do something about them."

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The BBC's Rob Smith
"There is a steady increase year on year"
See also:

16 Mar 01 | Health
Leukaemia infection clue
30 Nov 00 | Health
Child cancer survival doubles
22 Oct 01 | Health
Cancer leaves mark on children
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