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According to the World Health Organisation, there has been a significant increase in both non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancers over the past decade. Globally, we reach between 2 to 3 million non-melanoma and 132,000 melanoma skin cancer cases each year.

But why is Australia ranking near the top of the skin cancer list?

According to Australia’s Department of Health and Ageing, Australia and New Zealand have the highest skin cancer incidence and mortality rates in the world!

In both countries, the risk of people developing melanoma before the age of 75 is 1 in 24 for males and 1 in 34 for females.

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Our Skin Cancer Expert: Dr Ahmad Hasanien

Dr Ahmad Hasanien, a skin cancer physician at Specialist Clinics of Australia in Sydney, explains his concerns regarding these statistics; “Australians suffer the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Each year, around 1,200 Australians die from what is an almost totally preventable disease”.

Skin cancer in Australia

From 1982 to 2010, melanoma diagnosis had increased 60%, but the consultation to treat non-melanoma skin cancer rose only by 14%. Nonetheless, this meant reaching 950,000 skin-cancer related doctor visits each year!

Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most often identified type of cancer, with 434,000 people treated for it each year. Non-melanoma skin cancer always pushes the race in raising awareness about the dangers of UV exposure.

Although non-melanoma skin cancer is not as aggressive as melanoma, in 2011, 521 people lost their lives fighting non-melanoma skin cancer in Australia. Compared with 1,515 deaths associated with melanoma, the number is about 3 times smaller, however not at all ignorable!

Ultraviolet radiation in Australia

UV radiation is linked to a short geography lesson, as follows: the ozone layer is a region in Earth’s stratosphere that absorbs most of the sun’s UV radiation. Since 1970’s, a gradual depletion in the ozone layer has been noticed by scientists. This happens especially near the North and South Poles. As the ozone layer depletes, the atmosphere loses its protective filter and more of the dangerous UV radiation reaches the surface of our planet.

This depletion is directly related to the growing number of skin cancer cases. Protection against UV radiation is individual responsibility as the main factors making people susceptible to developing melanoma are associated with sun exposure and a history of sunburn.

Researchers estimate that a 10% decrease in the ozone layer will result in additional 300,000 non-melanoma and 4,500 melanoma skin cancer cases (www.who.int/).

The problem with Australia is that the continent receives higher UV radiation levels than Europe. “Being located close to the ozone hole over the Antarctic means that much higher, more severe levels of UV radiation get through to ground level,” says Dr Hasanien.

During summer, the Earth’s orbit brings Australia closer to the sun (as compared to Europe during its summer), resulting in an additional 7% solar UV intensity. Coupled with our clearer atmospheric conditions, this means that Australians are exposed to up to 15% more UV than Europeans.

Genetics play a role in skin cancer too!

Now, the history lesson: migration patterns are also responsible for a high number of skin cancer cases in Australia.

Hundreds of years ago, the genetic makeup of people corresponded with their environment. Nowadays people’s skin pigmentation is often no longer suited to their surroundings, especially in Australia.

“While the Aboriginals developed protection by natural selection over many generations, our Anglo-Celtic/European heritage leaves our skin poorly adapted to the harsh conditions of the Australian continent,” Dr Hasanien points out.

The fair-skinned population that migrated to regions with high solar UV radiation are at the biggest risk of developing skin cancer. A similar situation concerns people who experience intense sun exposure in short periods of time, like during a holiday break.

Did you know…?

The mortality from melanoma is 6 times higher in the Scandinavian countries than in the Mediterranean countries (WHO).

Considering the above, Australians should really pay a lot of attention to their lifestyle, as the facts are against them. “A combination of fair-skin, living close to the ozone depleted area and enjoying a beach-going culture puts Australians at extreme risk of developing skin cancer,” explains Dr Hasanien.

Having said that, the facts surrounding skin cancer prove that this is a totally preventable disease. This is why it’s important to understand how you can protect yourself against it.

“With sensible sun exposure habits and regular skin checkups,” explains Dr Hasanien, “it is possible to prevent skin cancer from affecting your skin.”

3 thoughts on “Why Is The Skin Cancer Rate Higher In Australia?”

  1. FH says:

    I am 80 years old, was a beach lifeguard while going to school for 10 years. Have lower latitude genetics with darker skin and brown hair and eyes. I also was a surfer and all combined sat in the sun for hours. After a couple of days did not get sun burned. I have friends who were light skinned, blue eyes and blond hair all of whom near my age have cancer. So far I am cancer free and have very few skin problems. I believe this article.

    Fred

  2. WD says:

    I have recently undergone a number of surgeries to remove some non-melanoma cancers and more recently a ‘preventative treatment ‘ (external chemotherapy) to remove many pre-cancerous cells which otherwise would have resulted in cancers in the future. From my layman’s position this is an excellent summary of the skin cancer risk and the cause and of course the prevention. One additional point is that the DNA damage is cumulative and this is one of the main reasons that skin cancer problems are more prevalent in older people. As longevity rises this can be expected to result in more cases of skin cancer making education about this problem more important than ever. The comment about Scandinavia is particularly relevant to me because one of my great grandparents came from Scandinavia; I was not a particularly heavy beach goer.

  3. W(T says:

    Thank you for this article on skin cancer in Australia.

    I would like to think that all residents, visitors and recent immigrants to Australasia are provided with information on the hazards of the effects of the sun in this ozone depleted region of the world*, and the reasons for this depletion.
    (*presumably the effects of ozone depletion are likewise experienced in other regions of the southern hemisphere)

    Regarding our unique weather, I have received comments by people visting from the northern hemisphere about how fierce the sun’s rays seem to be .
    While it is known that the winter months here can be hazardous for fair skins too, and the Bureau of Meteorology provides us with daily cautionary advice on this, my own experience is that there is a sting in the Australian summer sun’s rays not percetible in other countries with similar temperatures.

    I have never heard mention of this in any study so far, but can only think that there must be a link between ozone depletion and the ensuing fierce sting of the sun in our summer.

    After recently viewing an ABC health science show on skin complaints and skin cancer in particular, the ferocity of the suns rays was not mentioned nor was the effects of the ozone depletion in the atmsosphere, except by one interviewee who remarked blithely “thank you, hole in the ozone layer’.

    Disappointingly, this comment was not even acknowledged by the interviewer let alone investigated (the latter probably due to time constraints . An informative program nonetheless. If the link was made briefly between cause and effect earlier in the show then I missed it.

    I don’t suggest a scare campaign like the AIDs campaign of some years ago, but easily understood information on the facts for all, with preventable solutions to melanomas and the dispelling of myths such as preventative tanning and light clothing.

    In good health

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