Over 700 Australians were diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2017—equating to 2 cases diagnosed per day—according to the latest data released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
The report, ‘Mesothelioma in Australia,’ is the first report on the subject since the AIHW took over management of the Australian Mesothelioma Registry (AMR) in 2017.
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer in the mesothelium—the protective lining on the inside of body cavities and the outside of internal organs, such as the lungs, heart and bowel. Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer, and its primary cause is exposure to asbestos.
‘Before being banned in Australia in 2004, asbestos was used in more than 3,000 products in the construction industry, in industrial plants and equipment, and in ships, trains and cars,’ said AIHW spokesperson Dr Lynelle Moon.
A large amount of asbestos still remains in buildings and other infrastructure, and thousands of different products containing asbestos are still in use today.
Dr Moon said that Australia has one of the highest incidence rates of mesothelioma in the world, with between 700 and 800 people diagnosed each year.
‘In 2017, 710 Australians were diagnosed with mesothelioma, with most cases—592—among men,’ she said.
‘This is largely due to the higher proportion of males working in industries where asbestos exposure may have occurred in the past, such as construction.’
Of the people with mesothelioma who provided details of their occupations and residence since the AMR was established in 2010, 93% were considered to have experienced some level of exposure to asbestos during their lives. For men, most exposure was considered to be occupational, while for most females it was non-occupational (such as exposure while living in a house where asbestos was present).
Among states and territories for which data was available, the rate of mesothelioma was highest in Western Australia, with 4.9 cases diagnosed for every 100,000 people. It was lowest in Tasmania, at 1.5 cases per 100,000 people.
While the AMR has only been in operation since July 2010, the AIHW has been able to bring together other data sources (such as national cancer incidence data) to give longer-term insights into this issue in Australia. These data show a marked increase in the number of new cases of mesothelioma, rising from 157 cases in 1982. To date, the highest overall number of new cases was in 2014, with 770 cases reported.
‘This rise could be due to a number of factors such as increased awareness and improvements in diagnosis. Further, Australia used asbestos extensively until the mid-1970s, and mesothelioma has a delayed onset of 20-30 years from exposure,’
‘Sadly, mesothelioma has a very poor prognosis. It is often diagnosed once it has reached the advanced stages, as early symptoms can go unnoticed or be mistaken as symptoms for other, less serious conditions,’ Dr Moon said.
Mesothelioma survival rates are very low and this has not changed over time.
‘Since the mid-1980s, the 5-year relative survival rate for mesothelioma has averaged 5.4%. For comparison, the 5-year relative survival rate for all cancers combined was 69% in 2010-2014,’ Dr Moon said.
The average time between diagnosis and death is around 11 months according to analysis of all mesothelioma diagnoses and deaths recorded in the Australian Mesothelioma Registry (AMR).
The report was produced in collaboration with the Monash University Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health and an expert advisory group, including representatives from the Bernie Banton Foundation. The Australian Mesothelioma Registry is funded by Safe Work Australia.