SunSmart calls for urgent action as teens present with sunburn to hospitals in alarming numbers

Tuesday 2 March, 2021

With the UV at damaging levels until April, SunSmart is calling for Victorian families and secondary schools to step up their sun protection efforts as new data shows presentations to Victorian hospital emergency departments for sunburn last summer were highest amongst teenagers (32% of all presentations).

A recent report citing Victorian emergency department presentations for sunburn during summer 2019–20 shows one in two (56%) were children and adolescents aged 0–19 years of age. Of the total 177 sunburn hospital presentations reported, almost one in three were adolescents aged 10–19 years.

Head of SunSmart, Heather Walker, said it was shocking to see so many young people requiring emergency care for sunburn and it was a clear indication that more needs to be done to convince young people this is something they need to take seriously.

“Sunburn can be avoided with good sun protection. The high number of teens getting burnt badly enough to require hospital treatment shows how important it is to cover up when the UV is 3 and above. This message is getting lost somewhere which is a real worry.

“We know that UV damage during childhood and adolescence significantly increases the risk of skin cancer. Over time, the damage adds up – the more you’re exposed, the greater your risk. Establishing good sun protection habits early on is critical for that reason,” Ms Walker said.

Employers have a legal obligation to protect outdoor workers from the harmful risks associated with overexposure to UV. Ms Walker said it was disappointing that in many cases, the same protections have not been extended to teenagers at secondary schools.

“Sun protection is a shared responsibility between schools, parents and students. We appreciate schools have a lot to contend with, however UV is a health and safety risk and comes under a school’s duty of care.

“Schools play a big role in influencing attitudes to sun protection. The absence of a UV policy including a mandate for hat wearing sends a message to students that sun protection is not essential which couldn’t be further from the truth. UV exposure is just as dangerous for students at secondary school as it is for children during the early years,” Ms Walker said.

Skin cancer (melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers) accounts for the largest number of cancers diagnosed in Australia each year. In 2019, over 2,800 Victorians were diagnosed with melanoma with 270 losing their lives. For Victorians aged 15–29, melanoma is currently the third most commonly diagnosed cancer.

Ms Walker said skin cancer prevention needs to be maintained throughout life.

“This is not a disease you can afford to ignore at any age. We need to remind young people that what they do today in terms of UV exposure, can have a significant impact on their risk of skin cancer down the track – and it may be sooner than they think.

“The recent data on sunburn presentations to emergency departments shows us we need to do better with teens. And it’s on all of us – at home and at school – to lead by example and help protect the generation coming through from one of the most preventable cancers,” Ms Walker said.

Get advice on talking to your teen about sun protection at sunsmart.com.au

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About the Victorian Emergency Minimum Dataset

Data on presentations to Victorian emergency departments due to sunburn (ICD category L55) were sourced from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Victorian Emergency Minimum Dataset (VEMD) and provided to SunSmart Victoria via the Victorian Agency for Health Information (VAHI). Presentation data were supplied from the 2004–05 through to the 2019–20 financial years. Only public hospital campuses that fall within the national definition of an emergency department report to the VEMD as part of the Victorian Health Information Reporting System. De-identified data were provided for financial year, month, age group, sex, National Weighted Activity Unit, and urgency related group (triage and admission status). Emergency department presentations for sunburn as the principal diagnosis during the summer of 2019–20, were extracted and are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Emergency department presentations for a principal presentation of sunburn in Victoria in the summer of 2019–20

  Number of presentations
Summer 2019/20 (n=177)
% of all presentations
Summer 2019/20
Sex    
Male 91 51.4
Female 86 48.6
Age group    
0–9 years 42 23.7
10–19 years 57 32.2
20–29 years 39 22.0
30–39 years 19 10.7
40–49 years 10 5.6
50–59 years 8 4.5
60–69 years 1 0.6
70 years and older 1 0.6
Urgency status    
Emergency (triage category 2) 5 2.8
Urgent (triage category 3) 41 23.2
Semi-urgent (triage category 4) 90 50.8
Non-urgent (triage category 5) 51 23.2
Admission status    
Not admitted (treated in emergency department)  166 93.8
Admitted  8 4.5
Did not wait / Left (not treated) 3 1.7

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