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The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to shelter in place and cover our faces to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities. While staying at home saved lives, it also caused a number of troubling consequences that may add to the devastating toll of COVID-19 – chief among them a sharp drop in the number of preventive medical visits and cancer screenings, which are critical to maintaining our health and well-being.
Indeed, a recent survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 40% of adults in the U.S. have delayed or avoided medical treatment during the pandemic. Another recent study found a significant decline in the number of children receiving routine scheduled vaccinations. Avoiding the doctor or not getting necessary vaccinations can mean a missed opportunity to identify and prevent serious medical issues – for adults and children alike.
The good news is that as states reopen, patients are becoming more willing to visit hospitals and clinics – a shift that will undoubtedly help resume a focus on prevention and early disease detection. As we approach the end of Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month, however, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center is working hard to spread the word about a lingering effect of the pandemic: the significant threat to cancer research stemming from COVID-19's impact on philanthropy.
Indeed, the pandemic has already impacted the research that ensures the highest quality care while gradually improving outcomes for patients with cancer. Because of COVID-19, many labs closed temporarily, and many clinical trials were put on pause. As labs and research programs ramp back up, inadequate funding threatens to impede the important progress we have made in fighting childhood cancer.
Today, around 84% of children with cancer are cured, compared to around 58% in the 1970s. This improvement is a result of a continual investment in research. What's more, many important breakthroughs in pediatric cancer care – including the very first chemotherapy and living immune cell treatments – paved the way for advances in general cancer care, thus benefiting patients of all ages.
Federal support for these efforts is fairly low to begin with – about 4% of the total National Cancer Institute budget is allocated to childhood cancer research – meaning pediatric cancer programs rely heavily on philanthropy for financial support. As COVID-19 has impacted funding sources including philanthropy, programs that support the important work of my colleagues face a substantial reduction in financial support that may have ripple effects long after the COVID-19 pandemic.
In short, while we're making great progress in understanding – and ultimately treating – childhood cancer, we can't afford a steep drop in funding for research as cancer remains the leading cause of death for children, after accidents. The cancellation, postponement, and adjustment to virtual events for large fundraising gatherings (galas, walks, etc.) will hopefully not diminish the recognition of how philanthropy improves the lives of children with cancer. COVID-19 has changed many aspects of our lives, but I'm hopeful that it won't affect the commitment of those helping in the fight against pediatric cancer.
Along with spurring awareness and support for proper research funding, this month should also serve as a reminder that when children maintain important health care habits – such as eating healthy, regular physical activity, and avoiding tobacco products – into adulthood, they reduce their chances of contracting cancer and other harmful illnesses.
In addition to encouraging those good habits, we also urge parents and caregivers to make sure children regularly visit their doctors, pay attention to any changes in their children's health or behavior, and provide all recommended vaccinations. Vaccines are a crucial part of disease prevention, and as a parent myself, I am alarmed by falling vaccination rates. A recent report found that from March to May of this year, there was a 22% decline in vaccinations for children under 2 years old covered by Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.
We strongly encourage parents to vaccinate their children to prevent common childhood diseases – especially as kids in many parts of the country return to school. The CDC estimates that vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years, and it's important to remember that vaccines have successfully eliminated diseases that were once as threatening and pervasive as COVID-19. The CDC also predicts that the upcoming flu season will be complicated by the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, underscoring the need for all children older than six months to be vaccinated, according to CDC recommendations.
The bottom line is that there are steps we can take to keep our children healthy. These actions, coupled with well-funded research into fighting pediatric cancer, will go a long way toward protecting the health and well-being of our nation's children.