December 3 - 9, 2023: Issue 608


Alarming rates of sunburn in children, young people in NSW

Parents and carers are being urged to protect their children from the sun, with an alarming number of children and young people being treated in emergency departments for sunburn.

Health Minister Ryan Park acknowledged more needs to be done to reduce the incidence of skin cancer joining NSW Chief Cancer Officer Professor Tracey O’Brien and Member for Coogee Dr Marjorie O’Neill to launch the NSW Skin Cancer Prevention Strategy 2023 to 2030 at the Prince of Wales Hospital.

“It is pretty shocking to hear more than 800 people presented last financial year to our state’s emergency departments with sunburn, with the majority children and young people,” Mr Park said.

“Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and by the end of the year, we anticipate close to 6000 people in NSW will be diagnosed with this devastating cancer.

“Sun damage and skin cancers are highly preventable, and we’re encouraging the community to do really simple things like seeking shade when outdoors, wearing sunscreen, putting on a hat, sunglasses and protective clothing to safeguard themselves.

“Even mild exposure to the sun can lead to damage and I’m confident our latest Skin Cancer Prevention Strategy will help build on decades of skin cancer prevention work in NSW and save more lives.”

Two in 3 Australians will be treated for skin cancer during their lifetime, with 95% of melanoma and 99% of non-melanoma skin cancers caused by overexposure to UV radiation from the sun.

NSW Chief Cancer Officer and CEO of Cancer Institute NSW, Professor Tracey O’Brien, says high sun exposure in the first 10 years of life more than doubles a person’s risk of developing melanoma skin cancer.

“Australia has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world and protecting our skin from the sun from a very young age, and into adulthood, is key to reducing our risk of skin cancer,” Prof. O’Brien said.

“When people think of skin cancer risk, they often think of a day at the beach, but in NSW, UV radiation levels are high 10 months of the year which is why its vital people protect their skin all year round, even on cool and cloudy days.

“This new strategy is about working across government and community to ensure people are empowered and supported to protect their skin when at school, work and enjoying the outdoors.” 

As a child who spent most of her time outdoors enjoying nippers and netball, Kate Thomas received a devastating melanoma skin cancer diagnosis at the age of 27.

“When I was told I had skin cancer, I couldn’t believe it and my mind automatically went to the worst possible scenario. It was incredibly frightening,” Ms Thomas said.

“I wish I could go back in time and tell my young self to do things differently, to listen to my mum when she kept reminding me to cover up. My diagnosis completely changed my outlook on sun safety and I hope to encourage young people to take skin cancer seriously, and not make the same mistakes I made.”

Member for Coogee Marjorie O’Neill said all UV exposure from the sun is causing damage to our skin and increasing our skin cancer risk.

“We’re fortunate to live in a sun-drenched country which is why remembering to use sun protection needs to be instinctive when we step outside, and not just when we’re at the beach,” Dr O’Neill said.

“Whenever we go for a walk, are at the park or are hanging the washing we need to protect our skin and teach our kids to the do the same.”

The NSW Skin Cancer Prevention Strategy 2023 to 2030 was developed by the Cancer Institute NSW in partnership with 20 organisations and experts across health, education, industry, sport and recreation, and 600 community members.

The strategy focuses on the importance of embedding skin cancer prevention strategies across the public, private and community sector; improving access to quality shade at work, school, play and public spaces; and increasing the adoption of sun protection behaviours.

Read the NSW Skin Cancer Strategy 2023 to 2030:

Sunburn statistics:

  • In the last 10 years (July 2013 to June 2023), close to 5000 people have presented to an emergency department for treatment of sunburn with the highest rates seen in people aged 5 to 24 years.
  • In the 2022-2023 financial year, 818 people required care in an NSW emergency department for sunburn.
  • This is a 28% increase when compared to the previous financial year (640).
  • In the 2022-2023 financial year, the highest rates of sunburn related emergency department presentations were in Hunter New England (184), followed by South Western Sydney (105), Western NSW (91), Northern NSW (67) and Western Sydney (58).
  • Not all people with sunburn will present to an emergency department.

These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg.

The high rates in children and young people are concerning as high sun exposure in the first 10 years of life more than doubles their risk of developing melanoma skin cancer.