The number of new patients attending Australia’s world-leading melanoma institute for specialist treatment amid COVID lockdowns has dropped to a 12-year low.
The plunge has triggered fears people may have been deterred from seeking potentially life-saving medical procedures.
Official figures show patient numbers fell 18 per cent in 2020 and are likely to be 20 per cent down this year compared to 2019.
Melanoma Institute Australia co-medical director Professor Richard Scolyer says with early detection vital, the trend may result in a spike in lives lost to the disease in the coming few years.
“We don’t think this drop in new patients means less Australians actually have melanoma, it just means that COVID has delayed them seeking medical advice and being diagnosed,” he said.
“That delay in diagnosis and treatment can be the difference between life and death.”
The pandemic along with a reluctance of patients to seek advice or have regular skin checks are the most likely causes of the dramatic slide in consultations, says MIA’s Professor Georgina Long.
“If caught early, 90 per cent of melanomas can be cured with surgery alone, but if left undetected, melanoma can quickly spread to organs including the lungs, liver and brain,” she said.
“We have very real concerns that the coming year will see an influx of melanoma patients being diagnosed with more advanced-stage disease, which means a poorer prognosis.”
In 2019, 2015 new patients attended MIA’s cutting-edge Poche Centre at Wollstonecraft in Sydney to access treatment and clinical trials.
In 2020, this dropped to 1652, the lowest number since 2009.
New patient numbers for the first nine months of 2021 are down again (1169 as of 30 September), indicating the annual drop on 2019 attendances will surpass 20 per cent
Australia has the world’s highest melanoma rates, with one person dying every six hours. It’s also the most common cancer in 20-39 year olds.
The first sign is often a new or changing spot or mole on the skin.
It’s a scenario model Oceana Strachan knows first-hand.
“I have olive skin and naively thought if I got sunburnt, I would deal with the consequences much later in life,” the 25-year-old said.
“But then I discovered an unusual looking mole on my leg and luckily, in the midst of the pandemic, decided to go the doctor to get it checked.
“I was shocked when I was diagnosed with melanoma and ended up at Melanoma Institute Australia and having surgery. I am so thankful I didn’t delay seeking treatment.”
Oceana shared the story of her diagnosis with followers on Instagram in the hope it would help promote sun-safe behaviour and early detection.
It’s also why she has agreed to be the face of this year’s MIA campaign urging young Australians in particular to take action.
The cheeky awareness push, Game On Mole, is in its third year and uses slogan t-shirts to start conversations and encourage people to photograph their skin and monitor for changes.
“This campaign is more important than ever before,” Prof Scolyer said.
“We know COVID has resulted in melanoma patients being out there who just haven’t been diagnosed yet and it is critical that they hear this life-saving message.”
To join the campaign go to www.gameonmole.com.au