30 Mar 2016

NZ's deadly melanoma problem

8:21 pm on 30 March 2016

New Zealand must make a stronger commitment to sun-protection policies as the country overtakes Australia for melanoma rates, Melanoma New Zealand says.

Two children wearing hats play with spades on a sunny day at the beach.

Prevention efforts focussed on young children are working in New Zealand, Melanoma New Zealand says - but secondary school students are missing out. Photo: 123RF

Research from Brisbane published in The Journal of Investigative Dermatology indicates that New Zealand has now overtaken Australia as the world leader in invasive melanoma rates.

New Zealand has about 50 cases per 100,000 people and rising, compared to about 48 per 100,000 and dropping across the Tasman, the researchers say.

Invasive melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, capable of spreading to other parts of the body.

Researchers compared the rates of melanoma in six populations over a 30-year period from 1982 to 2011. The six populations were Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, and the Caucasian population of the United States.

Invasive melanoma rates in New Zealand reached about 50 cases per 100,000 people in 2011.

Professor David Whiteman, who led the study, attributed the falling rates in Australia to prevention campaigns run since the 1980s.

"Australians have become more 'sun smart' as they have become more aware of the dangers of melanoma and other skin cancers," he said.

"Schools, workplaces and childcare centres have also introduced measures to decrease exposure to harmful UV radiation.

"Unfortunately, rates of melanoma are still increasing in people over the age of about 50.

"This is probably because many older people had already sustained sun damage before the prevention campaigns were introduced, and those melanomas are only appearing now, many decades after the cancer-causing exposure to sunlight occurred."

New Zealand must do more

Dermatologist Ben Tallon, who is also speaking for Melanoma New Zealand, said there was now a clear gap.

"It appears that the Australian rates have been declining since about 2005, whereas our rates are still projected to increase, but hopefully show some plateau and decline from 2017.

"So we're starting to see this shift with a gap now between Australia and New Zealand in terms of our incidence rates."

Dr Tallon said it was predicted rates in New Zealand should level off in a year or so, largely because of prevention efforts focussed on children.

But he said much more needed to be done to bring rates down here, specially in schools, and in secondary schools in particular. Dr Tallon said, for example, hats should be compulsory at schools.

"We seem to have a good initiative in primary schools and in kindergartens where there [are] good sun protection policies developed, but [it's] the secondary schools who really miss out."

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Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said about 350 New Zealanders died from melanoma each year. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said it was not surprising that New Zealand had very high rates of melanoma.

He said New Zealand had a very high rate of ultraviolet light exposure, which he said was the principal risk factor for melanoma.

Dr Coleman said a lot was already being done to try to reduce melanoma rates.

"Most schools you'll go to in New Zealand, if not all schools, will require kids to wear hats when they're playing outside, they have shaded areas...

"The HPA (Health Promotion Agency), you know it's very involved with the SunSmart programme, getting out that message about sun protection, but there's no doubt that that rate has to come down over time."

Dr Coleman said about 350 New Zealanders died from melanoma each year.

Australia's melanoma rates are predicted to keep falling to about 41 cases per 100,000 people in 2031.

New Zealand's rates are expected to start declining from about 2017 onwards and reach approximately 46 cases per 100,000 people by 2031.


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