Shahid Akhter, editor, ETHealthworld, spoke to Purnota Dutta Bahl, CEO &
Founder, Cuddles Foundation, to know more about nutritional challenges associated
with paediatric oncology.

What have been the major nutritional challenges for children diagnosed with cancer?
As per the Indian Journal of Cancer estimates 40% of children with cancer are already
malnourished at diagnosis. Research also suggests that children with cancer are at a high
risk of becoming malnourished even if they may be well-nourished at diagnosis. The nature
of the disease and the side-effects of the treatment are such. The scientific position is
therefore to address nutrition at the very outset to have better treatment outcomes. In other
words, childhood cancer is curable when a child is physically strong to take treatment. But
survival becomes a challenge if children are undernourished.

How was paediatric oncology impacted by the pandemic?
COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns affected attendance at the hospital; much of the
healthcare staff was pulled into COVID duty. There were strict physical distancing protocols
which can be complicated when you’re treating and counselling sick children. The first and
second-order effects of the lockdown meant that parents started losing their jobs, and
sustaining treatment and travel for treatment under such conditions was challenging for them.
We started seeing a drop in OPD numbers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has considerably affected paediatric oncology services worldwide,
posing substantial disruptions to cancer diagnosis and management, particularly in lowincome and middle-income countries.

The pandemic has also exacerbated the emotional burden on patients and family members
during cancer treatment. Patients and family members are now, not only dealing with the
emotional trauma of the cancer diagnosis but also with complying with Covid safety protocols
and the fear of the risks associated with Covid infection. Those risks include the
consequences of the infection on their child’s already fragile state of health as well as
possible treatment delays or interruptions.

At Cuddles specifically we quickly pivoted to counselling patients and caregivers over the
phone to ensure there was no break in treatment, and so now we have a Tele-counseling
pilot program based on our learnings from the lockdown. And also managed to scale the
ration program with the help of supporters where delivery was impacted. In terms of hot meal
program that had to be suspended temporarily.

We also saw a drop in CSR funding for the cause given that funds had to be allocated to
fighting COVID. But individuals did rise to the occasion — starting fundraisers and pledging
birthdays or donating whatever they could so cancer treatments wouldn’t have to stop
because of COVID.

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