Sweden's doctors concerned over high skin cancer rate in Sweden

Sun-worshipping Swedes top skin cancer league

3:56 min

Scandinavian countries have the highest number of skin cancer cases in all of Europe, despite having the most sun-deprived climates. Sweden leads the Nordic countries, with 45,000 people diagnosed with skin cancer each year. 500 die from the disease annually, in particular from melanoma, which is more than the yearly total of fatalities from road traffic accidents.

The Karolinska Institute hospital and centre for medical research in the capital of Stockholm is hosting a number of medical professionals and researchers from around the world. They're gathered here to present the latest in research on ultra-violet radiation, and how that causes different kinds of skin disease, predominantly skin cancer. Sweden is known for its cool climate, but despite this skin cancer in Sweden is an issue that is receiving some much needed attention.

Johan Hansson, a doctor at Karolinska hospital, and one of the conference's organizers, says skin cancer has been on the rise in Sweden since the 1960s, and shows little signs of slowing down as the Swedes are a sun-worshipping nation.

"Swedes do not live in a sunny country, but we almost worship the sun. Since we are an affluent country we can afford to go abroad during summer and during winter", Hansson tells Radio Sweden.

"Many people travel to Asia, for instance, and get a very strong stan in a short amount of time. This is something that shows up now in cancer statistics, unfortunately", he says.

But it's not only on exotic getaways where Swedes run the risk of exposing themselves to cancer inducing UV radiation. It's also in their own backyards.

"The sun is not as strong here, but it's strong enough. We have a high UV index and thin ozone layer now because we are close to the middle of the summer. At this time of year it is essential to protect yourself, even from the Swedish sun", says Hansson.

One of the issues being discussed at the conference is the use of tanning beds, a practice which is popular in Sweden, especially during those sun starved winter months. While many countries have banned tanning beds entirely due to the proven link between their use and skin cancer, tanning beds can be found in swimming pools and sports halls in all of Sweden's municipalities. Phillipe Autier, a physician from France, has been researching into link between the use of tanning beds and melanoma.

"Sweden is one of the champions in the world for indoor UV-tanning. Teenagers and young women are crazy about keeping a tan. But also, it's a question of feeling well. During the long winter, there is a need to get some light", Autier says.

While Norway will implement laws that prohibit the use of tanning beds under the age of 18 this July, Sweden has yet to do so. Autier says this means Sweden is behind other countries in the world in matters of skin cancer prevention.

"This is something that we, in the international and public health community, can not understand. There is a strong move towards limiting the use of tanning beds. We would like to see the same occuring in Sweden. We don't understand why young people in Sweden could have access to something that it, at the end of the day, totally hazardous", he says.

Johan Hansson says that while Swedes are well informed about the dangers of UV radiation, the here and now appeal of the sun's feelgood effect and the desire to get a tan weigh more than warnings of skin disease in the future.

"Everybody really knows that sunlight can harm you, but the attitude is "that is a general problem, but I will not be harmed myself"", he told Radio Sweden.

But it's not only about changing attitudes. Healthcare needs to be improved to tackle the increasing number of deaths skin cancer is claiming. While Sweden is hosting a global conference on research to help diagnose, prevent and treat skin cancer, Johan Hansson at Karolinska Institutet says healthcare officials are reluctant to use existing treatments that are proven to have a big effect on saving the lives of those diagnosed with the most severe of skin cancers, melanoma.

"There have been fantastic breakthroughs in the past years in melanoma treatments. For instance in Denmark you can get access to treatment that you do not get in Sweden", says Hansson.

"In Sweden, the people in charge of the oncology clinics have said that the drugs are too expensive and we can not afford to use them, and that we need to have further investigations in order to be able to make a decision about whether we can use them. The problem is that these very ill people need treatment today."

Sophie Vucovic
Radio Sweden

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