Page last updated at 23:36 GMT, Friday, 9 April 2010 00:36 UK

Drive to speed up child brain cancer diagnosis

By Emma Wilkinson
Health reporter, BBC News

Brain tumour
Symptoms of brain tumours can be vague

UK doctors are to get new guidelines on diagnosing brain tumours in children, in order to tackle delays in treatment.

Specialists have produced a set of recommendations for GPs and hospitals on when to consider a brain tumour and what tests are needed.

Diagnosis now takes three times longer for UK children than those in the US, Switzerland and Poland, the Archives of Disease in Childhood reports.

Delayed treatment increases the risk of life-threatening complications.

Around one in 600 children under the age of 16 will be diagnosed with cancer, a quarter of whom will have a tumour of the spine or brain.

It is estimated that 60% of children who survive a brain tumour are left with a life-altering disability, such as loss of vision.

Delays in treatment can be fatal and lead to more severe symptoms and complications.

The team of specialists from Birmingham, Nottingham and Southampton, said despite the availability of scans, many children in the UK are unwell for months before they receive a diagnosis.

They said many families of children affected by a brain tumour believe they only got a diagnosis because they were so insistent that something was wrong.

Lack of clarity

Current guidance for diagnosing brain tumours in the under 16s is mainly aimed at GPs and only details what should happen up until the point of referral - not once a specialist view is sought.

Doctors will now be provided with a clear flow-chart outlining what symptoms should signal the need for further tests but also when to carry out scans, and a list of common pitfalls which can delay treatment.

They will help speed up early diagnosis of children with brain tumours and improve outcomes
Dr Pam Kearns, Cancer Research UK

Even those children at lower risk of a tumour should be seen by a specialist within two weeks and have a scan within four weeks, it stresses.

It points out that headaches and sickness are only present in about half of cases and the most common symptom is disturbance of vision.

It also takes into account that symptoms differ depending on the age of the child.

The researchers said the average time to diagnosis in the UK is about 14 weeks but they wanted the UK to be on a par with the best performing countries who have an average diagnosis of around five weeks.

Professor David Walker, from the Children's Brain Tumour Research Centre in Nottingham said a diagnosis is also sometimes missed because symptoms come and go which gives people false reassurance.

"Our aim is to bring levels up to the standard of the best in the world.

"We have a programme to disseminate the guidelines starting in May and we are also developing a website to help doctors and families understand and find out more about the combination of symptoms."

Dr Pam Kearns, a Cancer Research UK childhood cancer expert at the University of Birmingham, said: "We welcome these new guidelines to diagnose childhood brain tumours.

"The crucial next stage is to ensure they are widely used.

"They will help speed up early diagnosis of children with brain tumours and improve outcomes."

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