By KIM THOMAS - The Press
Christchurch is likely to be one of two main centres for child cancer treatment in New Zealand.
Wellington had "10 paediatric oncologists in a decade", with its two present child cancer specialists leaving in about two months.
Clinicians and managers from the Canterbury District Health Board are this week meeting their counterparts in Wellington to "discuss issues around paediatric oncology and to look at a range of options".
Health sector sources say it is likely two treatment centres will be established in Auckland and Christchurch.
Lower North Island patients will be treated in either centre, depending on bed availability.
Health Minister Tony Ryall has told the Capital and Coast District Health Board it needs to sort out the situation.
Christchurch child cancer specialist Michael Sullivan said the Wellington service had fallen over four times in the past decade.
"They have had 10 paediatric oncologists in a decade and are still not able to fix the problems."
It was unclear what services Wellington could provide after its two specialists left, and what would be required of Christchurch and Auckland, he said.
"What everybody is seeking is clarity."
Shifting cancer treatment centres was hard on families midway through treatment, but the move would be less difficult for new families, he said.
Sullivan said a child cancer service needed a larger population base.
"We cannot provide a comprehensive childhood cancer service with anything less than 900,000 people. Child cancer is an infrequent [condition] and if you're trying to have a population base of 500,000, it just doesn't work."
To cater for Wellington patients, Christchurch would need to hire a third paediatric oncologist and possibly extra nursing staff, Sullivan said.
Capital and Coast District Health Board operations director of women's and child health, Delwyn Hunter, said its paediatric oncology service faced several staffing challenges.
"We are in discussions with the two other tertiary centres for this specialty (Christchurch and Auckland) to discuss the extent of support which will be available when two of our specialist doctors depart."
The board had sought advice from the national paediatric oncology steering group which is led by clinicians from across the country about the long-term future of the service at Wellington Hospital.
"We are committed to providing child cancer services from Wellington Hospital the only question which remains unanswered is what level those services can extend to."
TEEN SHUTTLES SOUTH FOR TREATMENT
Teenage cancer patient Wayne Cherry has flown between his Wellington home and Christchurch Hospital for treatment at least a dozen times in the past year.
Wayne, 14, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in February 2008 and immediately sent to Christchurch for five weeks initial treatment.
Wellington Hospital was unable to treat the teenager after the resignation of its two paediatric oncologists. About a year later Wellington's two replacement paediatric oncologists have resigned and Wayne expects to spend more time in Christchurch's cancer ward.
His mother, former long-distance swimmer Meda McKenzie, said Christchurch's child cancer team was excellent.
However, she was concerned about the uncertainty over the Wellington child cancer treatment service.
"Families keep meeting with the (Capital and Coast) health board and there is a lot of talking, but no decisions seem to be made.
"We don't get a choice; we need the treatment, and have to wait in limbo to see where we will be sent."
McKenzie said Wayne was in the treatment maintenance phase, which required a chemotherapy injection every couple of months.
The injection took about 20 minutes. "It seems silly to send him all the way to Christchurch for a 20-minute injection," she said.
Wayne said he was used to staying in Christchurch and really liked the doctors and nurses.
However, he preferred his few months of treatment in Wellington because he could go home after chemotherapy.
"I miss my friends and it's easier to go home than stay in hospital."