Mesothelioma patients are living longer after diagnosis, despite rising death rate

Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive type of cancer with no cure. However, the latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) suggests survival is improving.

The report, Mesothelioma in Australia 2019, shows that at 1 April 2020, 659 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in 2019 had been reported to the Australian Mesothelioma Registry, which is managed by the AIHW.

‘Mesothelioma is predominantly caused by exposure to asbestos. Despite all forms of asbestos being banned in Australia from 2004, hundreds of Australians continue to be diagnosed with mesothelioma every year,’ said AIHW spokesperson Mr Justin Harvey.

The death rate from mesothelioma has risen in recent years, from 1.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012, to 2.9 per 100,000 in 2019. The increased death rate in 2019 largely reflects changes in historical exposure to asbestos because the disease takes many years to develop and cause symptoms.

‘Due to its aggressive nature, most cases of mesothelioma have a poor prognosis. However, the length of time people usually live after a mesothelioma diagnosis is gradually increasing, which may be due to earlier detection or improved treatment options,’ Mr Harvey said.

Between 1987 and 1991, 37% of people lived at least one year after their diagnosis, 10% lived at least 3 years after diagnosis, and 6% lived at least 5 years after diagnosis. After accounting for changes in the population’s age structure over time, these rates had increased to 55%, 17% and 10% respectively between 2012 and 2016.

Mesothelioma is much more common in men than women, which is likely due to men more commonly working in certain industries—such as construction—where they may have been exposed to asbestos.

Over 1,100 people diagnosed with mesothelioma since July 2010 voluntarily participated in an asbestos exposure assessment survey. Of those participants, 94% were assessed as having possible or probable exposure to asbestos. Of these, 78% of men and 6.8% of women had possible or probable exposure to asbestos at work.

‘Among those diagnosed with mesothelioma who participated in the asbestos exposure survey, the likelihood of occupational exposure to asbestos varied across different professions. For example, 81% of people who worked in trades-related jobs, 75% of participants who worked in water transport-related jobs, and 40% of participants who worked in land transport-related jobs were assessed as having had ‘probable’ exposure to asbestos while working in jobs in those categories,’ Mr Harvey said.

Of the women survey, almost all (99%) provided information indicating non-occupational exposure.

It is important to note that, because mesothelioma typically develops a long time after exposure, the cases included in this report are likely related to historical occupational exposure and should not be interpreted as indicative of current risk in workplaces today.

The import and use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products is prohibited in Australia, however a large amount of asbestos still remains in the built environment.

The Australian Mesothelioma Registry is funded by Safe Work Australia.

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