News One dead every five hours: The Australians who aren’t getting the melanoma message
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One dead every five hours: The Australians who aren’t getting the melanoma message

sunscreen safety
Australians are being urged to treat sunscreen as a lifesaving necessity akin to a seatbelt. Photo: Getty
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New analysis shows the incidence of melanoma – otherwise known as “Australia’s cancer” – has steadily crept up since 1991, and looks set to increase until 2021.

By then, the Slip, Slop, Slap campaign will have been in train – in various forms that now take in wearing sunglasses – for 40 years.

So what happened?

According to a skin cancer report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), melanoma incidence almost doubled from 1982 (28 cases per 100,000 persons) to 2015 (51 cases per 100,000 persons).

In 2016, 13,300 new cases of melanoma were expected to be diagnosed.

Toasting your own death

In 2014, 1400 Australians died from melanoma. In 2017, 1800 were expected to die – a lag in statistics is yet to confirm this. However, this represents almost a 30 per cent increase in deaths – one occurring every five hours – at a time that treatments have markedly improved.

It suggests one thing: The message isn’t getting through.

It’s a situation that causes Matthew Browne, CEO of the Melanoma Institute Australia, to admit to occasional despair.

“When you go to the beach, you still see a lot of people who aren’t what we would call sun safe.”

The institute is running a social media campaign over summer tied to the various holidays, from Christmas Day (consumers were urged to buy sunscreen as a present) to Valentine’s Day, which offers all manner of creative possibilities.

“The basic message is to treat sunscreen as you would a seatbelt,” Mr Browne told The New Daily.

“We want to see people putting it on in the same way they would automatically put on a seatbelt. We want to get people thinking of it in terms of every day in the sun, and not just at the beach, but when walking around.”

Still, Browne is hoping to see a shift by the time the next cancer statistics are released at the end of the year.

“We’d be excited to see a measurable decrease,” he said.

The original ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ commercial

Some reasons to hope

His cautious optimism is tied to an expected shift in what’s been driving melanoma numbers in Australia: The older World War II and post-war generation that ran free and unprotected as children in the sunshine.

“As the population aged, the chance of getting melanoma increased,” Mr Browne said.

“They were children before the Slip, Slop, Slap message came about.

“The people who grew up in the ’80s and the ’90s did seem to respond to the message. But I don’t know if that message is as strong as it used to be.”

The evidence will come one way or the other as that older, sun-crisped generation finally goes to God.

“We’d be hoping to see a flattening in numbers and then we’d expect a drop, if the message gets out,” Mr Browne said. “If that message doesn’t get out, our view is there won’t be a drop.”

The key to a happier set of statistics is young people. Melanoma is the most common cancer affecting 15 to 39-year-olds – and kills more 20 to 39-year-olds than any other cancer.

The AIHW report on skin cancer offered some hope: For people aged under 40, the rate of melanoma cases dropped, from 13 cases per 100,000 people in 2002, to about nine in 2016.

Public messaging has no doubt helped, including a spate of gruesome news stories about young people succumbing to melanoma after using tanning beds in solariums.

Ban on solariums undercut by dodgy operators

Solariums have since been banned in large part because of a campaign by Melanoma Institute Australia.

However, a 7.30 report in March found a thriving backyard solarium industry that will undeniably keep the death rate equally thriving.

Meanwhile, consider this from the 2016 AIHW report: In 2013-14, there were more than 23,400 melanoma-related hospitalisations in Australia, a 63 per cent rise from the 14,350 recorded in 2002-03.

Over the same period, non-melanoma skin cancer-related hospitalisations rose by 39 per cent, from about 82,400 in 2002-03, to about 114,700 in 2013-14.

Perhaps the simple message should be: Put a bloody hat on.

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