When abnormal blasts appear in the bone marrow, they multiply rapidly and lose their ability to grow up into normal white cells. They begin to crowd out the normal cells that usually develop there. After accumulating in the bone marrow, leukemic cells spill over into the blood. Leukemic cells may also cross the blood-brain barrier and invade the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
When leukemic blasts begin to fill the marrow, production of healthy red cells, platelets, and white cells cannot be maintained. As the number of normal cells decreases, symptoms appear. Low red cell counts cause fatigue and pale skin. Low platelet counts may result in bruising and bleeding problems. If mature neutrophils and lymphocytes are crowded out by the blasts, the child will have little or no defense against infections.
Acute leukemia is the most common childhood cancer. Often thought of as strictly a childhood disease, leukemia actually afflicts many more adults than children. Each year in the United States, approximately 3,500 children are diagnosed with acute leukemia.
Childhood leukemia is most commonly diagnosed at ages two to seven, with the highest incidence at approximately three years of age. In the United States, leukemia is more common in whites than in blacks, and boys have a slightly higher incidence than girls. Children with certain genetic diseases have a higher risk of developing leukemia than does the general population.
Leukemia is not contagious; it cannot be passed from one person to another.
Although the exact cause of childhood leukemia is a mystery, certain factors are known to increase the risk of developing the disease.
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