If 2020 rates remain stable, the global burden from melanoma is estimated to increase to 510 000 new cases and 96 000 deaths.
New research showing that New Zealand has the highest death rate of melanoma in the world is of little surprise, a health researcher says.
The disease causes the death of 350 people annually, with the cost of diagnosing and treating melanoma in NZ is estimated to be in excess of $51 million annually.
If 2020 rates remain stable, the global burden from melanoma is estimated to increase to 510 000 new cases and 96 000 deaths – a 68% increase – by 2040, the research by international scientists showed.
The rates were highest in Australia and NZ, followed by Western Europe, North America and Northern Europe.
Amanda Oakley, Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Auckland’s Department of Medicine and dermatologist at the Waikato District Health Board, said the study put NZ’s high melanoma rate in a global context.
“It’s of no surprise and we should take every opportunity to promote skin cancer awareness,” Oakley said.
Farmers, especially those aged over 50, were among the worst affected.
“A large proportion of our patients are older farmers and some of them are in tremendously big trouble,” she said.
Many of these farmers had been diagnosed with other forms of skin cancer as well as melanoma that are painful, unsightly and can result in surgeries and treatments, she said.
Oakley is a member of Melanoma Network of NZ (MelNet) and said the organisation was disappointed that government funding for promoting skin cancer awareness had disappeared.
“That has left charitable organisations and professional organisations and the media to do what should be Ministry of Health work,” she said.
The health system continued to be under great strain and organisations like MelNet were too often the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.
“Our health services are under a great strain with far too few dermatologists, surgical specialists and GPs to effectively manage our skin cancer epidemic,” she said.
The high levels of melanoma among the older generation are a direct result of their behaviour in 1960-1980, where it was common to be outdoors in the summer months with no skin protection.
“People took no notice of the painful sunburns they had,” she said.
Reducing the risk of melanoma came down to keeping out of the sun during the heat of the day, dressing appropriately and using sunscreen.
People also needed to be aware of their own skin, know what was normal and be mindful of what was new or was changing, she said
If there was something different that was concerning, Oakley said it must be checked out and she urged people to get a full skin examination.
“Your doctor should be able to say, ‘hey you’ve got troublesome skin, you need to come every year for a skin check,’ or they may say there’s nothing of concern today,” she said.
The final part of risk reduction came down to ensuring people who needed treatment can receive it promptly,
“It’s very sad when we hear of people who cancel their surgical appointments because they’re just too busy on the farm and they come later when there’s a more difficult problem,” she said.
Access to those services varied depending on the patient’s location. In Waikato, for example, GPs are able to email pictures of suspicious looking lesions to dermatologists who can then diagnose it based on the information made available.
“We’re proud of our system because it means wherever they live, they can be referred to this service through their local GP,” she said.