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Global Scholars: Dr. Alia Ahmad

Dr. Ahmad driven to bring early detection to more children of Pakistan

Dr. Alia Ahmad will never forget the moment she got the news.

She was studying in Malaysia at the time, away from her native Pakistan and her family. Her daughters had been with her but had left a short time earlier as Dr. Ahmad began to study for her exams.

It was nighttime when she got those exam results.

“I called my mother — it was late night here also — and I cried with her with happiness that I passed my exam,” she says. “Because my mother was also struggling, taking care of my kids, and I was also struggling, outside of my country.”

Nearly 10 years later, in 2020, Dr. Ahmad was again up in the middle of the night. She just so happened to check her email, and there, waiting, was another message with good news: She’d been accepted into the Global Scholars Program.

“It was one of the happiest moments of my life,” remembers Dr. Ahmad, who woke up her daughter to celebrate. “I hugged her, and I cried with her that I am selected. It was a very precious moment for me. … My mother was not with me to celebrate, but my daughter was there to celebrate with me.”

The memories have stayed with Dr. Ahmad: Two nights, nearly a decade apart. Two moments that begin to capture just how much this journey has meant to her.

Alia Ahmad

Dr. Alia Ahmad hopes her project will provide a path to care for those families who wouldn’t historically get a diagnosis. A second aim is to reach other patients earlier.

She focused in on this current path in 2008, when she visited Children’s Hospital Lahore as part of a short rotation to prepare for her exams. Ever since, she’s been driven to help children with cancer in a public sector hospital.

“I found this department was very much neglected. There were very few trained people, and many of these patients were just coming for palliative care,” she remembers.

 “It broke my heart,” she says. But it also inspired her, “to give my services to these patients, who are much, much neglected, and [had] nobody to take care of them.”

 Now an Associate Professor of Pediatric Hematology Oncology at Children’s Hospital Lahore, Dr. Ahmad has dedicated her Scholars Project to finding a new approach for children like the ones she encountered many years before and those she now treats. She is particularly concerned about the large numbers of children who aren’t making it to the hospital in the first place — by some estimates, as many as 7,000 each year.

 In a country of about 230 million, Dr. Ahmad says, 10,000-11,000 children are expected to be diagnosed with cancer every year. But as doctors and researchers examine hospital data, they find that the number has actually been closer to 4,000, leading to suspicions that thousands of children “don’t have any access to any treatment centers, and they die somewhere … without diagnosis and without treatment.”

 Dr. Ahmad’s project seeks to build a first alert mechanism for reaching these children. She is designing an early detection training program for primary and secondary healthcare providers to promote the early diagnosis of childhood cancer. She plans to start in one district, training lady health workers and community health workers on what to look for with childhood cancer and where to refer children if they are showing signs of the disease, for instance:

  • A fever that lasts for four weeks or longer.
  • Swelling in the lymph nodes, abdomen, or bones.
  • Other unusual symptoms.

 These signs, Dr. Ahmad says, should prompt a health care worker to check the child’s blood counts — and if need be, refer them to the nearest doctor or specialist. “Usually, parents … they suspect something is wrong with the child — he’s not getting well,” she says. “But they don’t know where to go.”

 Dr. Ahmad hopes her project will provide a path to care for those families who wouldn’t historically get a diagnosis. A second aim is to reach other patients earlier. When children arrive at her hospital, Dr. Ahmad says, they are often at Stage 3 or Stage 4. “If these children come in earlier stages … then we will be having more options to cure them, with less toxic protocols.”

 She plans to start in the Kasur District, which is located about an hour’s drive from Lahore. If the program proves to be successful, she and her colleagues will seek to replicate it in a second district. Then a third. And so on.

 Eventually, Dr. Ahmad hopes that she can take the results to policymakers and advocate for a childhood cancer task force.

 “There’s a myth that childhood cancer is not treatable [or] it’s very expensive, so nobody bothers about it,” she says. “So we have to make them realize that childhood cancer is treatable, and it’s not really expensive, and government should put more efforts to look into this health problem. Because, at the moment, they don’t have this childhood cancer in their agendas.”

 Dr. Ahmad brings a valuable perspective to the issue. Children’s Hospital Lahore not only is the largest children’s hospital in Pakistan but also provides free treatment to children with cancer and blood disorders. When Dr. Ahmad started, hospital workers were treating some 200 children with cancer each year; they are now treating around 2,000.

 “We are facing a lot of challenges,” she says, “but I think things are much better than 12 years back. More patients are being treated. More patients are being cured. And the whole team is passionate to serve better for these patients.”

 Now, with her Scholars Project in motion, Dr. Ahmad stands ready to push that progress forward even further.