02/14/2013 05:01 EST | Updated 04/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Childhood Cancer: Joint Project Boost Treatment Of Kids With Cancer In Caribbean

TORONTO - The SickKids Foundation in Toronto is launching a project aimed at improving the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and serious blood disorders in children living in the Caribbean.

The Caribbean-SickKids Paediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Project will help train health professionals, provide consultation and diagnostic expertise, and expand access to treatment and supportive care for children in six countries.

Those countries are the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago, the Hospital for Sick Children's foundation announced Thursday.

"If a child is born with leukemia in Canada, it is believed they have between an 80 to 90 per cent chance of surviving the disease," said Dr. Upton Allen, head of infectious diseases at Sick Kids and co-director of the program.

"If that same child is born in Kingston, Jamaica, they have about a 50 per cent survival rate. And if that child is diagnosed in any of the other Caribbean countries, they have less than a 50 per cent chance of surviving the disease.

"The inequality between outcomes for children with cancer and serious blood disorders in the Caribbean compared to those in Canada is heartbreaking," Allen, a native of Jamaica, said in a statement. "Together, we can help change that."

In the Caribbean, there are few medical practitioners with specialized training in children's cancers, limited technological resources to aid diagnosis, and a dearth of nurses and pharmacists able to provide specialized care.

The project, which will partner with local hospitals in the Caribbean, includes a five-year plan for addressing gaps in research, care and education.

Until recently, Jamaica did not have a single resident pediatric oncologist among its population of more than 2.8 million. Last May, Dr. Michelle Reece-Mills, who was trained at SickKids, returned home to Jamaica as the country's first and only doctor specializing in childhood cancer.

Reece-Mills said she will never forget a patient she treated in the second year of her residency at the University Hospital of the West Indies in Jamaica. A young girl was transferred from the Bahamas and immediately treated with chemotherapy, but she died within a week.

"This patient really touched me, and I remember wishing there was something else we could have done in this situation," Reece-Mills said. "We often don't have the resources in the Caribbean to treat these cases."

Hematologist Dr. Victor Blanchette, a native of Barbados who will helm the project with Allen, said children in the Caribbean often succumb to cancer because the proper diagnostics and treatments are not available.

"Our goal is to ensure more children are able to survive their diagnosis, be cured and lead healthy, productive lives," he said.

Elements of the five-year plan include using TeleMedicine, physician envoys, and hands-on training through the hospital's international educational program. To date, seven trainees from Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago have spent time at Sick Kids.

The foundation has a goal of raising $8 million in donations to cover the next five years of the program.