Skin cancer danger as WA sunburn hospitalisation at six-year high, prompting calls for compulsory shade


The number of children getting so badly sunburned they need to go to hospital has reached a six-year high in Western Australia, with the number of cases doubling since 2014.

Cancer Council WA said it added weight to the argument for shade to be made mandatory in new developments to help prevent future skin cancers.

Figures from the state’s emergency departments reveal 321 people presented with sunburn last year compared to 185 six years earlier.

The biggest increase was among children and young adults aged 10 to 19.

WA Burns Service chief Fiona Wood, a former Australian of the Year, said the cases that went to hospital were just “the tip of the iceberg”.

“We only see the more severe burns, those requiring significant pain relief or requirements for dressings and staying with us a few days,” Professor Wood said.

She said parents were generally “devastated” when they brought their children in with sunburn.

Perth burns specialist Fiona Wood wearing face mask in an operating theatre during surgery.
Burns specialist Professor Fiona Wood said children have ‘very delicate skin’ and some need hospital treatment for sunburn.(Supplied: Fiona Wood Foundation)

Planning for shade

Cancer Council WA chief executive Ashley Reid said the figures were shocking.

He said up to 95 per cent of melanomas in Australia were caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

Close up photo of Cancer Council West Australia chief executive Ashley Reid
Cancer Council WA CEO Ashley Reid said sun protection was about personal responsibility but government also had a role to play.(ABC News: Jon Sambell)

“Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Western Australia; it costs our health system $90 million a year and it is almost entirely preventable,” Mr Reid said.

“Personal responsibility is absolutely a factor but government has a huge role to play.

“Western Australia has the unenviable record of having some of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, and that is due to the fact that the UV in WA is above three almost all the time.

Mr Reid said there was no current local or state regulations around shade provision for new infrastructure.

“It is such a simple thing to do to reduce people’s risk of skin cancer,” he said.

Cancer Council WA has listed what it considers as the worst offenders among major new developments in the state.

They include the Scarborough Pool redevelopment, Yagan Square in the CBD, Optus Stadium and Bob Hawke College in Subiaco.

“It would have been a really simple thing to make sure from a government point of view that that is part of the planning approval to have enough shade, given the risk we have in WA,” Mr Reid said.

Melanoma fight

Cloverdale father of three Scott Dunning is about to embark on his second round of immune treatment for stage four melanoma.

“Originally I was diagnosed with stage four melanoma in October 2017 and at that stage was given 12 to 18 months to live, so, three years later, it is good, it is bonus time from now,” Mr Dunning said.

The diagnosis came after a GP noticed a suspicious looking mole on his shoulder.

Perth man Scott Dunning wearing a hat in his garden
Scott Dunning, who is battling stage four melanoma, has backed the Cancer Council’s campaign for more shade in public places(ABC News: Andrew Willesee)

“If I think about it and reflect on the amount of times I would probably wear a t-shirt and I guess be out in the sun at music festivals, or playing cricket or whatever, if there was a part of my body that would probably get the most exposure to the sun it would be that area at the back of my neck, top of my shoulder,” Mr Dunning said.

He said growing up he lacked awareness of the dangers of UV radiation, particularly on colder or overcast days.

But he agreed with the Cancer Council that public areas, from sports facilities to local farmers’ markets, needed shade.

“I think it’s really important,” he said.

“I think there is a real need for that infrastructure to get built and I would also suggest there is probably a real need for some sort of educational campaign to create a bit more awareness of the effects of UV not just temperature.”

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