Britain's first skin cancer patrol takes to the beach

Health/ sunshine warning
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BRITAIN'S first skin cancer beach patrol is to alert people to the dangers of sunburn this summer on the sands of South Wales.

The initiative, on the Gower peninsula near Swansea, will start to bring Britain into line with traditional homes of the sun-worshipper such as Australia and California, where the dangers of skin cancer are increasingly being emphasised.

In Australia, some beaches carry health warning signs, and communal sprays with barrier sun creams from 10-gallon drums are also available. In California, barrier cream sales have trebled in 10 years in some coastal areas.

There is a worldwide rise in skin cancer cases, thought to be linked to increased leisure activities and possibly also to changes in the atmosphere such as depletion of the ozone layer.

Six beaches in Gower, one of the sunniest areas in the UK and where cases of skin cancer have doubled in 10 years, have been allocated a team of three nurses plus volunteers, who will give out warnings and advice to sunbathers this summer.

Sunbathers with suspicious moles, one of the first and more obvious signs of skin cancer, will be referred to doctors for further tests and treatment.

The nurses, who will be on duty during the hottest time of day, 11am to 3pm, will also be on the lookout for any children at risk. Latest research shows that burns in childhood can lead to cancer in later life.

"If they see a baby or child at risk they are likely to bring that to the attention of the parents, although we have to be careful not to be too intrusive," said Dr Dafydd Roberts, consultant dermatologist at Swansea's Singleton hospital. "We hope people on the beaches will come to us."

Operation Molewatch is funded by the Health Promotion Authority for Wales at a cost of £10,000, and is being launched by a group of agencies including West Glamorgan Health Authority and five councils.

"At the end of the exercise we are going to assess whether this is useful in combating skin cancer," said Dr Roberts. "It is unique in the UK. No one has done this kind of assessment of what people do on the beach. We have a researcher who will also be talking to people and completing questionnaires. We will be following up the people we deal with at a later date to see what effect our advice had."

The move comes amid growing concern about the increase in skin cancer in the UK. There are around 40,000 reported new cases of all types of skin cancer each year. All are related to sunlight, but malignant melanoma is the most aggressive. Melanoma occurs most frequently on the legs in women and on the trunk, particularly the back, in men. Women are twice as likely to suffer a melanoma as men.

Since the mid-Seventies, the number of people dying of melanoma has risen by 73 per cent, while its incidence has gone up by 160 per cent. But if caught early it is one of the most curable cancers.

Childhood sunburn is increasingly thought to be a trigger of skin cancer. "A single episode of severe sunburn, especially in infancy or childhood, may be enough to trigger melanoma later in life," according to a research document by the primary care group of the Cancer Research Campaign. Research in Italy found that there was a fivefold increase in the risk of skin cancer among people who had been sunburnt in childhood.

"Significantly increased risks associated with sunburn in childhood have also been reported in the USA, England and Denmark,'' wrote Dr Robin Marks, senior lecturer in dermatology at Melbourne University, in a report in the British Medical Journal.

Dr Marks wrote: "Melanoma has been increasing in many populations around the world and even higher rates have been predicted as a result of the depletion of the stratosphere ozone." He added: "The fashion for a suntan, associated with increasing public acceptance of decreasing proportions of the body being covered while outdoors, has led to large numbers of people being exposed to sufficient sunlight to cause sunburn ..."

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the cause of skin damage. The main component is ultraviolet A rays which cause the skin to darken but do not burn. Ultraviolet B rays are very damaging and can cause redness and burning. Ultraviolet C rays, which are at present removed by the ozone layer, are extremely damaging to the skin. In Canada, national weather forecast bulletins now include ultraviolet-ray predictions as well as carrying health messages such as "Sun can cause cataracts, too."

Britain's health strategy, The Government's Health of the Nation, recognises the problems of skin cancer and has set a target to halt the increase in cases by 2005. But perhaps its most ambitious aim - to make a tanned appearance unfashionable - tackles the root of the problem.

n Annual sunshine figures for the UK show that there has been a gradual increase since the early Eighties. The figures are: 1981, 1,322; 1982, 1,560; 1983, 1,545; 1984, 1,593; 1985, 1,593; 1985, 1,563; 1986, 1,585; 1987, 1,395; 1988, 1,542; 1989, 1,914; 1990, 1,889; 1991, 1,498; 1992, 1,457; 1993, 1,549; 1994, 1,668.

The decrease and then renewed rise after 1991 is thought to reflect the eruption of the volcano Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines, which threw a massive dust cloud around the earth and reduced sun temperatures.