New Zealand overtakes Australia for highest rates of skin cancer, says study
New Zealanders now have the highest melanoma rates in the world, overtaking Australia, a new study has found.
And one melanoma patient has accused Kiwis of having a dangerously oblivious attitude to life in the glare of the world's harshest UV levels.
"New Zealanders just don't get it," Kathryn Williams, of Upper Hutt, said. "We are living in this environment where the UV is killing us, and on top of that we don't have medicine to fix it."
Australian research, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, has found Australian melanoma rates are on the decline, but the opposite is true in New Zealand.
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The QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, measured melanoma rates in six countries in the 30 years to 2011, including the United Kingdom, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia.
It found that, in New Zealand, melanoma rates have nearly doubled in the past 30 years, with about 50 cases per 100,000 people in 2011.
That puts our rate well in excess of Australia's, which peaked at 49 per 100,000 in 2005, and has since declined.
While rates in New Zealand were expected to drop to about 46 per 100,000 by 2031, starting from next year, this would still makes us the most melanoma-ridden country in the world.
And while the rate would decrease slightly, population growth meant the actual number of Kiwis getting melanoma would rise.
University of Otago associate professor Tony Reeder, who was not involved in the study, said New Zealand and Australia had a uniquely unfortunate combination of high UV levels and a large European population poorly adapted to handle the exposure.
"We have a summer when the Earth is closest to the sun ... it means you can be quite heavily exposed even when the weather is quite cool," he said.
Australia's rates were dropping because of a big focus on prevention and education, particularly in schools. "It seems that Australia has been much more committed to investment in sun protection and mass media campaigns."
However, Professor David Whiteman, who led the study, said the expected drop in New Zealand, and Australia, reflected a growing "sun smart" culture in both countries.
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said on Wednesday that a lot was already being down to prevent melanoma, including efforts around education.
"Most schools that you go to in New Zealand, if not all schools, will require children to wear hats when they are playing outside."
Overtaking Australia did not change the Government's position on prevention, but he agreed the melanoma rate needed to fall. "We've got to continue to push those messages."
'WE JUST DON'T GET IT'
Kathryn Williams is incredulous at the attitudes of most New Zealanders to the sun.
Rather than treating the outdoors as a "breeding ground for melanoma", Kiwis often slapped on a bit sunscreen and forgot about it.
"If you just put some sunscreen on in the morning and go to the beach, then you are in big trouble. You're giving yourself the ingredients for cancer."
The Upper Hutt mother was diagnosed with incurable stage IV metastatic melanoma in 2008, aged 39, and given about a year to live.
Treatment has involved removal her ovaries, part of her right kidney, and a section of her right collarbone. While not cured, she is now in remission.
She said she had always been careful to cover up while growing up, but even that had not been enough.
"I used to fight with my son over putting sunscreen on."
For her, the "horse has bolted" on prevention, and the fight is now for access to the new-generation drugs that could save her life.
But for today's children and teenagers, the pattern is repeating itself.
"We've got 20-year-olds dying from melanoma already ... and we are going to see a lot of people in their 20s now starting to present in clinics in the next 10 years."
MELANOMA: A KIWI PROBLEM
* It is the fourth most common cancer, after prostate, breast and colorectal, with 2324 reported cases in 2012.
* 354 people died of melanoma in that same year
* Accounts for one in 10 cancer cases
* The New Zealand rate nearly doubled between 1982 and 2011
* With cases currently running at about 51 per 100,000 people, New Zealanders are more than twice as likely to get melanoma as the British.