Playing with fire

2013-09-20 00:00

CANSA’S Be SunSmart: A Guide for Schools, warns that it takes only a few minutes for a child’s skin to burn and that the damage is permanent and cumulative.

By the time children reach adolescence, nine out of 10 will have UV-related skin damage. Strong scientific evidence indicates that UV exposure during childhood and adolescence is a risk factor for developing skin cancer in later life.

More than a third of South Africa’s pupils do not use sun block.

This is one of the findings from a study of 707 pupils in 24 schools in South Africa’s nine provinces, which was conducted as part of the SunSmart schools research project.

The Human Sciences Research Council, the Cancer Association of South Africa and the Medical Research Council, were involved in the study led by doctor Caradee Wright.

Wright said the aim was to determine schools’ sun policies and pupils’ behaviour regarding the dangers of sunburn, in order to draft a sun-protection policy for SA schools.

Research shows that most sun damage to the skin happens before the age of 18 years.

“Sun protection is extremely important for children, especially those with sensitive skins, who are exposed to the risk of sunburn for up to 166 days in a year in the warmest part of South Africa,” Wright said.

She said the study showed that pupils do not know how to protect themselves against sunburn, that many are not concerned enough about their health to change their behaviour, and that schools often do not offer the necessary support to protect pupils against sunburn.

Of the 24 schools surveyed, only nine indicated that they have sufficient shade for all their pupils during breaks.

Only three schools had a rule that their pupils should wear a hat in summer, but more than half (58%) of the schools encourage pupils not to play in the sun for too long. Most (91%) however, indicated they would not move the times of break to avoid sending the pupils outside during the time of the highest UV levels.

Only a quarter of the schools planned to erect shade structures for the pupils. Most cannot afford to do this.

Most of the schools (79%) lock their classrooms for security reasons during breaks, forcing pupils to be in the sun.

Two thirds encourage pupils to use sun block, but 90% cannot afford to supply it. More than half of the pupils (55%) said they have not received any training on sun safety in the past year.

Joel Perry, from Cansa, said the study provided valuable platform on which their SunSmart awareness campaign will be based. “It is clear that schools can make an important contribution to inform and protect our children against the sun’s dangers, if the lack of supporting structures at schools can be addressed,” Perry said.

Keryn Delaney, of Save our Skin in Durban, agreed, and said that little is being done at schools. “We’ve tried to have sun-protection policies introduced as part of schools’ life-skills curriculum, taking the lead from New Zealand and Australia, but the uptake has been frustratingly slow. A lack of media coverage from the top down is sorely lacking due to budget constraints. Hence, South Africans do not take skin cancer seriously,” Delaney said.

Delany said that some schools have committed on varying levels towards becoming sun smart, but often fail to implement measures. She agrees that while many schools are enthusiastic, they do not have the resources (especially time) to ensure a vigilant commitment. Delaney said that Save Our Skin will work closely with the South African Skin Cancer Foundation. While Save Our Skin is focusing on schools, the foundation’s focus is broader.

• People with darker skins are not at risk of getting skin cancer.

• Sunscreen will protect me completely from the harmful effects of the sun’s rays.

• The sun is only dangerous in summer or on a hot day.

• One or two burns can’t cause cancer.

• Schools are too busy and bogged down by policies.

• Teachers are not leading by example.

• Parents are not aware of the importance of sun protection.

• Insufficient media coverage and government funding.

• Perceived as a “white” problem.

• Budget constraints.

• Apathy due to lack of education.

• People are sceptical — they don’t believe it will happen to them.

• A sun-protection policy is implemented during key months, January to May and September to December.

• All staff, pupils and parents are informed of the skin-protection policy and its intended practices.

• All pupils wear a broad-brimmed hat (minimum 7,5 cm)

• Pupils not wearing a hat are required to play in shaded areas.

• The use of a SPF 30+ broad-spectrum sun block is encouraged.

• The use of sun-protective clothing is encouraged.

• Staff are encouraged to act as role models.

• Education on sun protection is included in the curriculum.

• A sun-protection policy is reflected in the planning of outdoor events (gazebos, sun spray machines, etc.).

• The school has sufficient shade or is working towards increasing the number of trees or shaded areas.

• The school reviews its sun-protection policy termly, along with Save Our Skin.

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