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Do Aussies need more time in the sun?

Fears of skin cancer resulting from sun exposure may have prompted a new health concern — vitamin D deficiencies.

Scaffolders, who were given the day off because of high temperatures, jump off Beach Pier in Melbourne, Jan. 29, 2009. (Mick Tsikas/Reuters)

GOLD COAST, Australia — In a strange twist, the sun-soaked citizens of Down Under are becoming vitamin D deficient, making them vulnerable to a multitude of cancers.

Could it be a case of public health campaigns — accelerated in the 1980s, after scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer that would let unfiltered UV rays through to the earth with dangerous consequences — working a little too well on those living in the “skin-cancer capital of the world?”

In western Australia and the northeastern state of Queensland, vitamin D deficiency has rarely been cause for concern among young people, who pride themselves on an outdoor lifestyle that takes full advantage of the country's vast coastline.

However, studies have found young adults to be either deficient or largely insufficient in the important vitamin, which is now strongly linked with colon, prostate and breast cancers, along with the skin cancer, melanoma. In Queensland, also known as the Sunshine State, studies have shown vitamin D deficiencies in up to 40 percent of people tested.

Figures point to lifestyle choices as a probable cause.

Despite their adoration for the beach and the huge population migration toward coastal living, Australians also work some of the longest hours in the Western world. Like Americans and Europeans, they spend much of their day commuting in trains, buses and cars, and often spend lunch breaks sitting at their desks. The elderly also tend to spend more time indoors: the average age of an Australian melanoma patient is 80, indicating that their disease is the result of a long life of exposure to the sun.

So, are Australian's fears of developing skin cancer — stoked by two decades of public awareness campaigns that range from the catchy to the downright scary — unfounded?

Rebecca Mason, professor of physiology at the Bosch Institute, University of Sydney, points to research from Omaha, in the United States, and studies from the United Kingdom and Germany that suggest a complicated relationship between sunlight and melanoma. The studies from Europe conclusively found that a small amount of sun exposure on the hands, face and neck on a regular basis may in fact protect against the skin cancer melanoma, even after diagnosis and the initial removal of cancerous tissue.

Evidence also showed that if a patient had a melanoma removed in the summer months when their vitamin D levels were higher, their chances for survival were vastly improved.

Contrast this with the message broadcast by government-sponsored groups such as the Cancer Council Australia:

  • Skin cancers account for 80 percent of all newly diagnosed cancers in Australia each year;
  • Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70;
  • More than 10,000 Australians are treated for melanoma each year, of which around 1,250 die;
  • Melanoma is the most common cancer in Australian aged 15-44 years;
  • Australia has one of the highest incidences of skin cancer in the world, at nearly four times the rates in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. 

Regardless, the issue of a vitamin D deficiency is occupying a new generation of researchers.

Why the concern?