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Childhood Leukemia and Prevention

September 13, 2019 -

Cancer is the second most common cause of death in children 0–14 years of age, after accidents. Leukemia is the most common cancer in children, representing approximately one third of pediatric cancers. Approximately 3,800 children are diagnosed annually with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) or acute myeloblastic leukemia (AML) in the United States (U.S.). Its annual incidence has increased over the last decades, especially among Latinos. Although most children diagnosed with leukemia are now cured, many suffer long-term complications, and primary prevention efforts are urgently needed. The early onset of leukemia – usually before age five – and the presence at birth of “pre-leukemic” genetic signatures indicate that pre- and postnatal events are critical to the development of the disease.

In contrast to most pediatric cancers, there is a growing body of literature – in the United States and internationally – that has implicated several environmental, infectious, and dietary risk factors in the etiology of childhood leukemia, mainly for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common subtype. For example, exposures to pesticides, tobacco smoke, solvents, and traffic emissions have consistently demonstrated positive associations with the risk of developing childhood leukemia. In contrast, intake of vitamins and folate supplementation during the pre-conception period or pregnancy, breastfeeding, and exposure to routine childhood infections have been shown to reduce the risk of childhood leukemia. Some children may be especially vulnerable to these risk factors, as demonstrated by a disproportionate burden of childhood leukemia in the Latino population of California.

The evidence supporting the associations between childhood leukemia and its risk factors – including pooled analyses from around the world and systematic reviews – is strong; however, the dissemination of this knowledge to clinicians has been limited. To protect children’s health, it is prudent to initiate programs designed to alter exposure to well-established leukemia risk factors rather than to suspend judgement until no uncertainty remains. Primary prevention programs for childhood leukemia would also result in the significant co-benefits of reductions in other adverse health outcomes that are common in children, such as detriments to neurocognitive development.

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