An Investigation into Childhood Leukaemia in Northampton

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Background to this investigation

In 1993 Northampton Health Authority and Northampton Borough Council were alerted by a local Borough Councillor to a possible cluster of cases of childhood leukaemia in the Pembroke Road area of the Spencer Estate in Northampton.  We were told that there was particular public anxiety that these may have been caused by an accident on the railway line in the early 1980's involving radioactive material. 

Leukaemia is a very serious and distressing illness.  Not only is it a lethal disease when left untreated but the treatment itself can be long and traumatic.  It causes a lot of stress to both the children affected and their families.  The Health Authority were very concerned and an investigation into this cluster was set up at the time in collaboration with Northampton Borough Council. 

The investigation concluded that: 

  • there were no other cases of childhood leukaemia in this area
  • the incidence of childhood leukaemia in Northamptonshire was not higher than in the rest of the country
  • the cluster was probably a chance occurrence 
  • there was no evidence or record of an accident on the railway line involving radioactive material
  • there was no environmental hazard in the Pembroke Road area that could have accounted for this cluster and which could be used as a starting point for a case-control study
  • a local epidemiological study would not be large enough to provide any additional information (we consulted national experts who confirmed this conclusion) 
  • large, well-organised and well-conducted studies are in progress that are designed to discover the causes of childhood leukaemia
  • the residents of the Spencer Estate are probably not at any higher risk of developing leukaemia than other residents throughout the county
  • we should continue to actively look for new cases of childhood leukaemia which might change the picture
  • we should continue to follow the scientific evidence about the causes of leukaemia in order to be able to take appropriate preventive measures if and when these are identified.
The conclusions of the investigation were fed back to the community through a number of local networks, including local councillors, the school health system and General Practitioners.  Two public meetings were held. One was held by Dr Hover, the school doctor responsible for children in this area at the Camrose Clinic. The other was run by a Health Visitor and the School Nurse at the Gladstone Lower School.  We received feedback from these sources and from other people in the community that the public anxiety had lessened. 

However, it became apparent in 1995 when a number of articles about these leukaemia cases appeared in the local press that the measures we had taken in 1993 had not alleviated public concern.  We reviewed the situation and came to the same conclusions as before.  This time we felt it was important to communicate directly with worried families and organised a private meeting for them to discuss their concerns with local and national experts, question representatives from the Health Authority and Borough Council about their investigations, and tell us what they think ought to be done.  A number of points were raised at this meeting which the Health Authority agreed to answer in a written report.

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© Northamptonshire Health Authority, reproduced by kind permission of Dr Amanda Burls, Sen Reg in Public Health Medicine.

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