Dr George Chagaluka is a paediatric oncologist from Malawi and oversees the paediatric oncology unit at World Child Cancer's partner hospital, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, Blantyre.
How did you get where you are today?
I am a Malawian, from the northern part of Malawi. I was selected by my university to do medicine and completed my undergraduate degree in 2005. Following this, I did an internship at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre, where I was mentored by Professor Elizabeth Molyneux, who at the time was the head of the hospital’s paediatric department.
I started training as a Paediatrician in 2007 and spent two years in South Africa. Once I had qualified as a paediatrician I came back to work in Malawi, retuning to South Africa again in 2013 to do a fellowship in paediatric oncology at the university of Cape Town.
On my return to Malawi in 2015 Professor Molyneux was retiring and I took over. Since then, I have overseen the paediatric oncology unit here, as well as being the head of paediatric department.
Why did you become a paediatric oncologist?
One thing I realised when I got to South Africa – which is only a short flight from Malawi – was that they were seeing a lot of childhood malignancies and we were not. For example, in Malawi at that time, leukaemia was a very rare diagnosis, whereas in South Africa, it would be seen far more frequently.
What are the challenges of treating children with cancer in Malawi?
We have several challenges:
- Late presentation – we tend to see childhood cancer cases at late stages. Inevitably, this has a big impact on treatment outcomes.
- Shortage of key staff in cancer diagnosis and care:
- QEC Hospital does not have its own histopathologist. We must rely on private pathologists that need to be paid.
- Shortage of nurses – Fortunately World Child Cancer are currently funding three nurses on the ward but more are needed.
- Shortage of medical officers
- Poor drug supply – less than 10% of drugs come from government sources. The unit is part of the government system, but the drug supply is very erratic.
- Lack of space – the current ward has about 25 beds and most of the time it is overcrowded.
How does World Child Cancer help?
The support from World Child Cancer has been absolutely vital. One aspect of this support has been covering the cost of the salaries for nursing staff, laboratory staff, a data manager and project coordinator.
In addition, World Child Cancer also helps fund pathology costs for support with diagnostics.
On top of this there is the support with procuring drugs and associated treatment costs, such as nutritional support and transport costs.
Early diagnosis is also a key focus. We have started training physicians at district hospitals on the early warning signs of childhood cancer.
Covid has meant we have not been able to do this as much as we would like but we are hoping to continue with these trainings, as early diagnosis is such an important factor in survival.
What have the other impacts of Covid-19 been on your work?
One of the major knock-on effects of Covid-19 has been the introduction of social distancing on public transport, which in turn has seen the cost of fares double, making trips to the hospital prohibitively expensive for many families.
What are your hopes for the future of paediatric cancer care in Malawi?
My greatest hope is that the government in Malawi will recognise that childhood cancer matters. We must focus on engaging the government to make sure they realise that childhood cancer is a priority and requires investment.
This means ensuring there is a constant drug supply and people are deployed and redeployed within the health system to critical areas, including childhood cancer.
Despite the incredible challenging circumstances, George and his team at QECH do everything they can to give children with cancer the best possible care. By donating to our appeal, you will help support children with cancer in Malawi and beyond to access better treatment, earlier diagnosis and family support when they need it most.