Australian melanoma rates take the silver – and that's good news

Australian melanoma rates take the silver – and that's good news

31 March 2016

The average risk of melanoma in Australia may have peaked in 2005 while New Zealand's rates of melanoma have risen to be the highest globally. However, Australia's burden of melanoma might stay very high over the next 15 years as the population ages. MIA Research Director Professor Mann explains.

A new study by QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, one of MIA’s research affiliates, has examined melanoma rates in six different countries and used current trends to predict how they will change in coming years.

The latest data from cancer registries are from 2011. In the five years prior to that, 50 cases of melanoma occurred per 100,000 people in New Zealand while in Australia the rates fell slightly from our world-leading position in 2002-06, to 48 cases per 100,000 in 2011. Researchers predict a peak incidence of about 51 in New Zealand by 2016-2017; while in Australia rates should continue to edge down from a peak of about 49 in 2005.

Why is this happening?

The main clue is that rates of melanoma in young and middle aged Australian adults peaked in the early 2000s. This is good news because it shows that our awareness, prevention and sun protection work, especially with children in recent decades, is reaping benefits that will clearly continue in decades to come. In New Zealand the same impact has been seen in the young, but the rise of melanoma in older people has been stronger and harder to stop.

The down side of these results is that the sun exposure “banked” by people who grew up in the 1920s-1950s is still being converted into skin cancer and melanoma, especially as these generations are living longer. The total number of cases of melanoma will probably stay steady in Australia until the 2030s, but in New Zealand it is predicted to grow another 25% over 2011 levels.

So we have all been doing a pretty good job of holding this epidemic at bay, but we need to work harder with Australians over 50 (like me!). These age groups missed out on sun smart campaigns as youngsters and UV radiation has already damaged their skin badly. However, we know that our risk of melanoma and other forms of skin cancer is driven by the total dose of UV that we get throughout our life, not just when we were young. So, just as it is never too late to stop smoking, every year of good sun protection helps undo the damage done before. 

Dedicated and increased prevention efforts to reduce unnecessary UV exposure remains our key weapon to fight melanoma in the future. It would be great to show by 2030 that these predictions of melanoma rates in older Australians for the 2020s were too pessimistic. 

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