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Herald on Sunday editorial: Let's save those with high skin cancer risk

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What is a surprise is that our public health system does so little about melanoma. Photo / iStock
What is a surprise is that our public health system does so little about melanoma. Photo / iStock

We have overtaken Australia to have the highest rate of melanoma in the world. That is not a surprise when we consider our deep blue skies. Both Australia and New Zealand lie far from the haze that softens sunlight over the big continents of the globe and its smallest continent to a lesser extent. But here, winds from the oceans keep our air clear and the sun can be fierce. It has nothing to do with temperature. The further south you go in New Zealand, the fiercer it can feel.

What is a surprise is that our public health system does so little about it. We are urged to be aware of the melanoma risk, to consult a doctor about any suspicious signs on the skin. Specialist clinics exist for "mole maps", full body scans that can monitor growths on the skin and spot any worrying changes. But it is mostly the worriers who use them.

Most New Zealanders of a certain age can remember summers in the sun, when they baked themselves dark brown or suffered severe sunburns, often both, before sunscreens were around.

They know that level of exposure can appear as melanoma much later in life. They have reason to be worried, yet despite this country's rising rate of melanoma with an ageing population, it is human nature not to worry until it is too late.

Next summer, as we report today, doctors will have access to a computer program that is said to be able to tell whether you have a high, moderate or low risk of developing melanoma over the next five years. It is about to be trialled by a number of general practices. It gives you a statistical risk rating based on questions about your skin, hair and eye colour, previous sunburns, family history and age.

It sounds like a program people could easily use at home. It is a start, but shouldn't our health services be doing more to combat a cancer that is now this country's fourth most common, and its sixth highest cause of death?

All but 5 per cent of deaths from melanoma occur in people aged 45 or older. Screening all of them would be going too far, since screening always results in some false positives and needless surgery, as well as some false clearances that leave cancers untreated. But routine screening of all those with a statistically high risk of contracting a melanoma within five years should be in the means of the health budget.

A cancer that shows on the skin should be the easiest to identify before it migrates to other organs. Early diagnosis is cheaper and more effective than drugs that can at best delay the advance of melanoma for a few months or years. The Government should make the most of this program and save some lives.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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