Cancer Council’s SunSmart program celebrates 20 years of protecting students from damaging UV radiation

Clayton Primary School students Drew, Benjamin and Payton remember to slip, slop, slap, seek and slide when the UV is above three. Picture: Sunsmart.
Clayton Primary School students Drew, Benjamin and Payton remember to slip, slop, slap, seek and slide when the UV is above three. Picture: Sunsmart.

IN THE late 90s only a third of schools had sun protective hats for students – fast forward 20 years and that number has risen to 93 per cent.

Cancer Council WA’s regional education officer Mikala Atkinson said more than 200,000 West Aussie kids have grown up with a reduced risk of skin cancer since the SunSmart Schools program started in 1998.

Mrs Atkinson said exposure to damaging ultraviolet radiation during childhood and adolescence was a major cause of skin cancer later in life, and schools played an important role in reducing this exposure.

“It’s really important to teach our kids these good SunSmart behaviours early on, and that the school has strategies in place such as sun protective hats and uniforms and adequate shade,” she said.

“The good news is the message appears to be getting through and it’s saving lives – for people aged under 40, the rates of the most deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma, has dropped from 13 cases per 100,000 people in 2002, to about 9 in 2016.”

In the 20 years of the SunSmart Schools program, a large number of WA primary schools have shifted from baseball caps to broad-brimmed hats and from crewneck short-sleeved shirts to alternatives with collars and longer sleeves.

Clayton View Primary School deputy principal Narrelle Thambipillai said they joined the program in 2016 to encourage students to adopt lifelong healthy habits.

“We felt that educating children from a young age was important for embedding their life long behaviours,” she said.

“We also saw the benefits of raising awareness in the wider community, for parents and other community members, of the importance of the SunSmart messages.”

Mrs Atkinson said across WA, 300 primary schools were registered as official SunSmart Schools, however very few high schools carried on with the program.

“High schools often leave the responsibility of sun protection up to students, but we’d love to see Midland and Perth Hills high schools take steps to improve sun protection – increasing shade and having a broad brimmed hat available to students is a good start,” she said.