Written by Carenews

Dr Pornpun (Cherry) Sripornsawan, Asian representative on the My Child Matters panel, explains how this landmark program is opening up new avenues for philanthropy in the fight against childhood cancer.

The situation at a glance: focus on childhood cancer in Asia

Every year, 400,000 cases of childhood cancer are detected worldwide. Unfortunately, survival rates vary enormously depending on the region where these children live. It is estimated that around 50% of these cases are in Asia, according to Dr Cherry Sripornsawan, world-renowned paediatric oncologist and Asian representative on the My Child Matters (MCM) expert panel. In Thailand, where she lives and works, "around 1,000 new cases of childhood cancer occur every year", she explains. 

In her 14 years of experience in the fight against these deadly diseases, she has seen enormous progress in the region. The main causes of death from childhood cancers were access to care and abandonment of treatment, but in countries like Thailand, survival rates have risen dramatically. "Right now in Thailand, for the most common cancers like acute leukemia, we have already passed the survival rate of 60% that the WHO requires. Before universal healthcare, when I started doing my work, it was around 30 to 40%,” Dr. Sripornsawan remembers.

While progress is underway in some Asian countries, many more need extra support in order to reach that goal. “On the whole, we've already improved over time and but this depends on many factors like the economy of a country or whether government policies focus on the childhood cancer treatment or not.”

Photo credit : James Mollison 

My Child Matters, a program with noticeable local impact over the years

Dr. Pornpun (Cherry) Sripornsawan attributes the better survival rates in Thailand to the combination of the implementation of universal healthcare coverage and the support given to local projects by My Child Matters. As a previous grantee of the program herself, she can vouch for the positive effects MCM has had locally.

“The main impact of the MCM program is the training. When I started working in the rural areas in the Southern part of Thailand, there were only three pediatric oncologists in the whole southern part of the country. So the first project we did with the My Child Matters program called “From cure to care: Holistic care for children with cancer”. It was aimed to build a shared-care network in the Southern region to train the pediatricians or local doctors for early diagnosis or to help us provide chemotherapy at a nearby hospital so the parents and children didn't have to travel,” she says.“ It's helped to decrease the problem of treatment abandonment.”

She adds: “Another aspect is that the cost of chemotherapy is paid by the government, but not the cost of living, when people have to travel from another province to our hospital. They don't have a place to stay and they cannot go to work so they cannot afford to be there during the treatment of their child; that causes treatment abandonment as well. This happens in many countries. My Child Matters comes in to fill this gap.”

The support that she and other Asian grantees received thus allowed local project leaders to train like healthcare personnel in the area on childhood cancer, through a holistic approach, from its diagnosis in the early stages of the disease through the process of treatment, with a special emphasis also on supportive and palliative care. “In Asia, more than 10,000 healthcare professionals have been trained thanks to MCM grants,” she says.

A wide network and community of practice

For project leaders, My Child Matters is also a way to learn from other practitioners in a very concrete way. “I think the best part of the MCM program is that I can connect with others. For the 10-year anniversary of MCM, there was a meeting in Paris where project leaders were invited and we all could see what the others do in their country. We saw a lot of people who have the same goals, but they have different approaches,” she explains.

Through its open approach, My Child Matters fosters connections and growth in ways other platforms do not. “When you attend a conference, you meet people but usually, we don't say, ‘Oh, our country has this problem.’ Within the My Child Matters community or committee, we can see the reality of each country and find an opportunity for improvement, so that we get something to bring back to our country and apply it.”

From grantee to grantor: a philanthropy model that relies on field experience

Today, on top of her work as a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Cherry Sripornsawan has joined the My Child Matters Expert Committee, which is in charge of choosing the projects that receive support from Foundation S - The Sanofi Collective. It’s been an interesting experience for this ex-grantee to cross over to the other side of the program and has already brought valuable insights into the decision-making process.

“This is my first year in the Expert Committee. I was the one to write grant proposals before so when reading each file, I could understand better what the problems were in the country and what was the applicants’ plan to improve them,” she explains. “I also could provide some experience because I worked with MCM before. I could also give insight to the committee about other factors like local governments or national policy. For example, sometimes, you dream of a big project, but you don't cooperate well with the local stakeholder, which makes it very hard for the project to happen.”

New projects pave the way for deeper change around Asia

Following her first participation as a grant giver, Dr. Cherry Sripornsawan highlighted some of the chosen projects in Asia, both of whom usher in a new and wider scope for projects supported by MCM.

“I like the project in Indonesia because they try to establish the impact of a universal health coverage program. I learned from my experience in Thailand that universal healthcare is a game changer for childhood cancer treatment,” she explains. “This will be a lesson for other low-income or middle-income countries to negotiate with their governments to make the universal healthcare programs happen. I can see how it's gonna impact the big picture.”

The other project in Asia that caught her attention is in Mongolia. “It's a small project because Mongolia is a small country but I could see the ambition of the project leader,” the doctor recalls. “She has done a lot to decrease the prevalence of cancer in Mongolia, where people smoke a lot.” While this project leader is not a pediatric oncologist, she aims for far-reaching change in the field of childhood cancer through policymaking, like trying to push for a tobacco act that would result in higher taxes on tobacco consumption.

“I think this is kind of new for the MCM community. Usually, they would not accept a project not led by pediatric oncologists. But I'm glad that the committee is ready to make some change because the important thing to reach the WHO global goal of 60 % survival rate for childhood cancer is to get these numbers into the policy level,” Dr. Sripornsawan states.

My Child Matters’ role in this new advocacy path is very clear to Dr. Sripornsawan. With the support of the program, local pediatric oncologists can successfully run their projects and prove their projects’ worth to local authorities in order to receive larger support.

“The policymakers or the governments, they need good news. They are less interested about how hard you have to work to fight childhood cancer, but they would agree to be part of a successful initiative like MCM.”