In a tweet promoting legislation that he says will improve children’s access to cancer treatments worldwide, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul shared a startling statistic about the likelihood of surviving cancer for children born in developing nations.
"A child’s chance of surviving cancer should not be determined by where they are born," said McCaul, a Republican from Austin. "But sadly, this is the case. 80% of children born in developing countries die of cancer each year. That is why I introduced the #GlobalHopeAct so children have access to life saving treatments."
A reader flagged McCaul’s statement about children dying of cancer and asked us to fact-check the statistic — which is inaccurate.
We found that his claim is a misquote of a finding by the World Health Organization that just 20% of children with cancer in developing countries are cured.
McCaul’s spokeswoman Rachel Walker pointed to the World Health Organization’s fact-sheet on childhood cancer as the source for the congressman’s statement.
"In high-income countries more than 80% of children with cancer are cured, but in many low- and middle-income countries only about 20% are cured," reads the fact-sheet, published in September of 2018.
If 20% of children with cancer are cured, it is safe to assume that 80% are not, which would explain the figure McCaul cited in his claim. But he applied the number to an entirely different pool of people — every child born in developing countries — and created a new, inaccurate statistic.
The World Health Organization finding measured survival rates for children diagnosed with cancer in different countries. It did not measure what percentage of all children born in different countries die from cancer each year.
When reached via email, Walker acknowledged that "a few words were left out in the tweet," but the larger claim McCaul made still stands: "Too many kids die from curable cancers and we are working to change that with our bill."
She also pointed to the video accompanying his tweet and noted that McCaul communicated the statistic differently.
"The mortality rate for children diagnosed with cancer in developing nations is a staggering 80%, matching the survival rate here in the United States," McCaul said in the video.
We decided to pursue a fact-check of the language in McCaul’s tweet, since it was flagged by a reader and is more readily accessible than the language he used in the video. Plus, it is still visible online and has not been corrected. But we kept the entire context of this statement in mind when issuing our ruling.
Other studies on childhood cancer
A paper published in the Ethiopian Journal of Health Science in 2016 found that "cancer is one of the major causes of morbidity and mortality across the world but more in developing countries."
But there are barriers to measuring childhood cancers in developing countries.
Nearly half of childhood cancer cases around the world are undiagnosed, according to a 2019 analysis published in The Lancet Oncology.
The analysis found a clear disparity in where undiagnosed cases appeared worldwide. In western Europe and North America, 4% of cases go undiagnosed, while 49% in South Asia and 57% in West Africa are undiagnosed.
But the figures that do exist show that mortality rates for childhood cancer are highest in developing countries.
A 2019 study on pediatric cancer published in Science Magazine found that the survival rate for children in lower-middle-income countries is 30%, while the survival rate in high-income countries for children with cancer is 80%.
Plus, most cancer cases are present in developing countries to start with: Nearly 90% of children with cancer live in low-income and middle-income countries, according to a different 2019 article in The Lancet Oncology.
"Childhood cancer mortality rates were higher 50 years ago, but can now fortunately be successfully treated in approximately 80% of cases where there is access to modern treatments and robust, supportive care," the article reads. "However, only 10% of the world's children live in high-income countries where effective care is broadly accessible."
Still, researchers behind the article said better data on lower income countries is needed "to improve outcomes for children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer worldwide."
McCaul said in a tweet: "80% of children born in developing countries die of cancer each year."
This statement is a misquote of a World Health Organization finding that just 20% of children with cancer in developing countries are cured.
McCaul’s statistic was more accurate in a video that accompanied his tweet, but data on childhood cancer mortality rates around the world is lacking — both in terms of cases that go undiagnosed and infrastructure in place to measure mortality.
Estimates that do exist suggest that the mortality rate for children with cancer in developing countries is between 70% and 90%. These studies look at children within their lifetimes, not mortality rates within a single year, as McCaul’s tweet suggested.
Overall, McCaul’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.
Twitter, Michael McCaul, Dec. 11, 2019
Email interview with Rachel Walker, spokeswoman for McCaul, Dec. 16, 2019
World Health Organization, Cancer in Children, Sept. 28, 2018
Ethipian Journal of Health Science, The Challenge of Childhood Cancer in Developing Countries, May 26, 2016
The Guardian, Children’s chances of surviving cancer less than 30% in poor nations – study, March 26, 2019
Science, Science and health for all children with cancer, March 15, 2019
American Cancer Society, Global Cancer Facts & Figures 4th Edition, 2018
United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Index (HDI), accessed Dec. 20, 2019
The Lancet Oncology, Estimating the total incidence of global childhood cancer: a simulation-based analysis, April 2019
The Lancet Oncology, Childhood cancer burden: a review of global estimates, January 2019
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