SA Schools Not Sun-Smart
02 September 2013 – More than a third of learners who participated in a recent CSIR study reported that they never use sunscreen when they are out in the sun.
This is one finding of The SunSmart Schools Research Project, which was co-funded by the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), the South African Medical Research Council and the CSIR. In one outcome of the research, CSIR environmental health researchers have drafted a sun protection policy for schools.
Researchers know that substantial sun-induced skin damage occurs before the age of 18, which makes sun protection crucial for children, especially for those with fair skins who, studies have shown, might be at risk of sunburn up to 166 days of the year in the hottest parts of our country.
Dr Caradee Wright, CSIR principal researcher who led the study, says that children either do not know how to protect themselves against getting sunburnt, do not place sufficient value on their health to alter their behaviour, or are not supported at school to do so.
The study was conducted at 24 schools across the country’s nine provinces. Only nine schools indicated that they have sufficient seating in the shade for all learners during breaks. One school had carried out a shade audit and maintained a shade inventory.
None of the schools had a ‘no hat, no play’ or a ‘no hat, play in the shade’ rule and only three schools required learners to wear sun-protective hats when outdoors and exposed to the sun in the first and fourth school terms (summertime).
School managers and 707 learners (at least one Grade 7 class in each school) completed questionnaires which were designed to assess school policy and sun-related knowledge of, as well as attitudes and behaviours toward sunburn and their skin cancer risk.
- More than 58% of schools said that they encourage learners to avoid excess sun exposure during breaks in the first and fourth school terms, however most (91%) were unable to schedule breaks to avoid intense sun exposure. This was mostly due to time-table constraints.
- Due to financial constraints, only a quarter of schools had plans to erect shade structures, while 70% had future plans to plant trees, yet this is a long-term intervention which, in some cases, might have been driven by environmental, rather than health concerns.
- Most schools (79%) did not keep classrooms open during breaks for learners to sit indoors. This was due to safety and security concerns.
- While two thirds of schools encouraged sunscreen use by learners when outdoors, more than 90% did not provide sunscreen due to its cost.
- A total of 55% of learners responded that they had not had any teaching about sun protection in the previous 12 months and 22% said that they had had one lesson or a part of a lesson about sun protection.
The researchers presented a suggested sun protection policy along with the results to each school and to the relevant government departments.
According to CANSA, the association has been provided with important insights and recommendations which will be taken forward into its upcoming SunSmart awareness campaign later this year. Read more about CANSA’s SunSmart campaign.
“The report provides evidence that schools can make a significant contribution to child awareness of sun protection and the limitation of unhealthy sun exposure when children are in their care. However, it has also shown that limited resources in public schools need to be addressed.
“CANSA is an evidence-based organisation when it comes to formulating policies. While tobacco use, other risk behaviours and intervention strategies have been researched in public school settings for purposes of strengthening intervention programmes, sun-smart awareness has not received similar national attention.”
Perry says that the results will enable CANSA to engage public schools and the provincial departments of education, as well as the Department of Basic Education for a structured programme that can be measured for impact in the long term.
“Along with the other parties involved with the SunSmart Research Programme and Lab, the CSIR remains committed to making a significant impact on the health of South Africans,” says Wright.
- Sunbathing – 59% reported that they had a suntan last summer and 21% said they sunbathed regularly to get a suntan
- Sunburn – 31% had been sunburnt at least once during the last summer and 25% more than once, 3% with blisters
- Knowledge – more than 80% had not heard of melanoma (a medical term for a type of skin cancer) and 64% understood that skin cancer could be prevented by avoiding sunburn, while 71% had not heard about the UV Index, a measure of the sun’s intensity used for public awareness
- Attitudes – only 17% believed a suntan made one feel more attractive and 23% reckoned clothing which covers most of the arms and legs is not fashionable
- Risk – 37% believed that there was little chance that they would get skin cancer, while 27% thought there was a chance