The number of newly diagnosed childhood cancer cases worldwide rose by 13 percent during the past two decades, according to an agency of the World Health Organization.

In a study published in the journal The Lancet Oncology, researchers with the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, reported the incidence of childhood cancer was 140 per million per year from 2001-2010 among children up to age 14.  

The incidence was 124 per million cancers annually throughout the 1980’s, according to data from a previous IARC study.  

Eva Steliarova-Foucher works in the cancer surveillance section of the IARC, which is part of the WHO.  

She said cancers that strike adults, notably cancers of the breast, colon and prostate, are often caused by genetic mutations that accumulate over time.

In children, she said, the disease is likely due to a genetic predisposition, adding that children tend to get different cancers than adults.

“The first most common cancer in children is leukemia, and this was seen in all the regions.  And then it is followed by cancers of the central nervous system in mostly high-income countries, and it was lymphoma in the other world, in low-income countries.”

The data were collected from 153 cancer registries in 62 countries, departments and territories covering about 10 percent of the world’s children.  

The best records of childhood cancers were from Western countries, including the United States, which kept records on almost 100 percent of sick children.  Five percent or less of the data came from Africa and Asia, according to the report.  In those low resource settings, Steliarova-Foucher says many cancers may go undiagnosed because of a lack of awareness and the unavailability of diagnostic equipment.

But she stresses that collection of data is important because, “You need to know how many cases there will be in the next years so that you have enough amenities to take care of these children. You need to know how much their treatment will cost also.  So, these data provide the first indicator of the burden (of cancer) in this population.”

For the first time, the IARC report also gathered cancer data on adolescents, between the ages of 15 and 19.  The incidence there was 185 cancers in one million teens each year, with lymphoma and melanoma at the top of the list.

By knowing the incidence of childhood cancer, Steliarova-Foucher says researchers can begin to identify some of the factors that may contribute to childhood cancer, including environmental pollutants and infections, which might be avoided.

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