State searches for cause of pediatric cancer cluster

PORTSMOUTH – State Department of Health and Human Services officials “are in the process of finalizing their protocol” for a questionnaire they will use to get more information about children who are part of the Seacoast pediatric cancer cluster.

“The potential is after we’ve had people who meet our case definition respond to the series of questions, we may find something in common,” Whitney Hammond, DHHS’s program coordinator for its comprehensive cancer control program, said during the meeting of Gov. Maggie Hassan’s Task Force on the Seacoast Cancer Cluster Investigation Wednesday.

Hammond added that getting responses from the questionnaire from the families of children who were diagnosed with one of the two cancers in the pediatric cluster might help them form a “potential hypothesis” for what could be causing the cancers.

But State Epidemiologist Benjamin Chan cautioned “it’s pretty unusual for a cancer cluster investigation to define a cause.”

Several Seacoast children have died from rhabdomyosarcoma, or RMS, one of the two rare types of childhood cancer the state determined was part of a Seacoast cancer cluster. The state looked at the number of RMS cases in Rye, New Castle, Greenland, North Hampton and Portsmouth, according to a report it recently released. While investigating the RMS cases, the state also identified a second cancer cluster involving a rare type of pediatric cancer called pleuropulmonary blastoma, or PPB.

Parents raised concerns that potential environmental causes – including Seabrook Station, the Coakley landfill, Schiller Station and a contaminated well at the former Pease Air Force Base – could be triggering the cancers.

Officials talked about doing a case control study as part of their continued investigation into the RMS cancer cluster.

Chan described that as a study that compares a group of individuals with cancer or some other disease to another group of individuals without that disease.

“If you have a suspicion there’s a link, it will help you put some statistical power behind the link,” state Rep. Thomas Sherman, D-Rye, and task force chairman, said during the meeting in Portsmouth City Hall.

But Sherman, who’s also a doctor, noted the “uphill battle” in the investigation is the small number of cases they’re dealing with.

“The bigger the numbers, the more likelihood you’re going to be identifying some type of linkage,” he said.

Chan stressed that “even if we don’t identify a cause the process of doing the investigation is worthwhile” as it raises awareness of childhood cancers.

Former Portsmouth City Councilor Stefany Shaheen, a task force member, said the hardest part of the investigation to deal with is “you’re raising kids on the Seacoast and you know there’s a greater risk of this cancer … and we can’t find a cause.”

“What feels like is missing is a complete survey of what the risks might be and where they might come from,” Shaheen said.

But Sherman stressed examining potential environmental factors is “the whole point of this task force.”

 

Source: Seacoast Online

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