Amelia Wade is a court reporter for the New Zealand Herald

New hope in skin cancer war

By next summer, doctors will have a new test to identify those with a high risk of developing melanoma.

But many in the sector remain concerned at the lack of systems to monitor whether these patients go on to develop New Zealand's deadliest skin cancer.

Last month, a study found New Zealand had overtaken Australia to have the worst melanoma rates in the world. They have almost doubled over the past three decades -- from about 26 cases per 100,000 people in 1982 to about 50 cases per 100,000 people in 2011.

University of Otago doctor of preventive and social medicine Dr Mary Jane Sneyd has developed a statistical computer program to identify whether someone is high, medium or low risk for developing melanoma over the next five years.

It is about to be trialled by a "handful" of GPs before being rolled out through the Best Practice Advocacy Centre system that is available on 90-95 per cent of practitioners' computers.

It will involve questions about skin, hair and eye colour, previous sunburns, family history and age.

Sneyd is providing the predictor model free on the condition she can use the data for further analysis.

This is the first time a tool has been available in New Zealand to identify high-risk individuals.

"The best way of controlling melanoma is either preventing it or diagnosing it early," Sneyd said.

The trial comes as criticism grows over a perceived lack of action on tackling New Zealand's growing melanoma rates.

Waikato DHB dermatologist Amanda Oakley said there is no legislation requiring medical practices to have someone able to diagnose potentially dangerous moles.

Instead, Oakley has developed a teledermoscopy system where Waikato practitioners can send her pictures of patients' lesions and she can identify whether action is needed.

"We have an average of 40 a week and among those, there's about a 25 per cent cohort that do need to come to the hospital for treatment."

But Oakley said setting up a nationwide system where every GP could send their photos to one centre for analysis would help lower the nation's melanoma death rate.

The move would help patients like Jeremy Burfoot, whose doctor misdiagnosed his lesion and tried to burn it off with liquid nitrogen.

A month later it was back and the 57-year-old went to a skin specialist who identified it as cancerous and cut it out. It was found to be melanoma in situ -- the earliest stage of the disease.

Reflecting on his 2005 scare, Burfoot counts himself lucky.

"If I'd just ignored it or even just relied on my doctor, I would have gone down the gurgler."

The Ministry of Health's cancer services manager, Sarah Eames, said the ministry was working with Sneyd on her risk predictor tool and with the Pharmaceutical Society to support pharmacists in providing up-to-date advice to customers on melanoma.

"One of the key resources is an online training module of skin cancer and its prevention."

- Herald on Sunday

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