New Zealand's 'leave it alone' attitude to blame for high skin cancer rate

New Zealand's high skin cancer rate won't change any time soon unless Kiwis change their attitude towards skin protection, an expert says. 

German medical analyst group has ranked New Zealand as having the highest susceptibility to skin cancer in the world, with Australia a close second. 

The 2018 skin cancer index published by revealed that almost 2500 new melanoma cases are diagnosed in New Zealand every year. European countries and the US filled out the top 10, but well behind New Zealand.  

The combination of New Zealand's climate and population make up means Kiwis are more susceptible to melanomas, Cancer Society of New Zealand chief executive Mike Kernaghan told Newshub. 

He said New Zealand's ultra-violet radiation gets to very high levels, and a large part of the population with European ancestry have skin types that are susceptible to sunburn and skin damage.  

"These factors, combined with a laisse-fare [French term for "leave it alone"] attitude toward skin protection means we will be continue to be a 'high risk' country for skin cancer," Mr Kernaghan said. 

"This shouldn't mean we accept this as a given however, as our nearest neighbour Australia has shown increasing rates can be halted or even reduced with a sustained investment in a comprehensive SunSmart programme."

The 2018 skin cancer index published by revealed that almost 2500 new melanoma cases are diagnosed in New Zealand every year.
The 2018 skin cancer index published by revealed that almost 2500 new melanoma cases are diagnosed in New Zealand every year. Photo credit:

The SunSmart schools programme was developed in Australia over a decade ago, and has been shown to be the most effective programme for sun protection policy and proactive in national evaluation and research in Australia, according to SunSmart Schools New Zealand. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended it as the "gold standard" schools' sun protection programme. The Cancer Society of New Zealand has developed and adapted the programme to fit into the New Zealand curriculum and climate.

"We all need to take skin protection seriously. The Cancer Society funds and delivers the SunSmart Schools Programme, however there is much more needed," Mr Kernaghan said.  

To really make a change, more investment is required for a comprehensive SunSmart programme nationally, he said, including a sustained social marketing campaign, support for schools to provide outdoor sun shelter, and better provision of shade at playgrounds. 

He said there also needs to be improved workplace recognition of the health and safety issues associated with over exposure to ultra-violet radiation  particularly for outdoor workers  which can be "readily mitigated". 

"The Slip, Slop, Slap, and Wrap message is still relevant, and provides good guidance for us all when we get in to the spring and summer," Mr Kernaghan said.  

While New Zealand ranked highly in terms of skin cancer rates, Kiwis who develop melanoma are less likely to die from it because of New Zealand's high health spending, the results show. 

New Zealand spends about $55 million a year on skin cancer alone, while Sweden, which has the fourth-highest rate of melanoma, spent more than any other country analysed. 

The Government's latest Budget put the vast bulk of new spending into health - $4 billion - part of which will go toward hospital buildings, with $2 billion of that going directly to District Health Boards (DHBs).

The chance of developing melanoma increases with age. The Ministry of Health says most melanomas are found in people aged 50 years or older, but the disease is reasonably common in younger age groups, especially people aged 25 to 39 years.

Melanoma is the fourth-most common cancer diagnosed in New Zealand.


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