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DHSV leads state-wide oral cancer prevention and screening program

27 July 2020

Oral cancer is six times more common in alcohol drinkers than in non-drinkers. With worrying reports that one in five Australian households are buying more alcohol since the COVID-19 outbreak, World Head and Neck Cancer Day on 27 July is an opportunity for Victorian oral health professionals to reflect on their important role in the prevention and early detection of oral cancer.

Regular consumption of alcohol significantly increases the risk of oral cancer. If a person smokes and drinks, the likelihood of oral cancer is far greater. There is no safe level of consumption: the more a person drinks and smokes, the greater their risk.

“Every week in Victoria, on average more than 14 people are diagnosed with oral cancer and five people die from it,” said Dental Health Services Victoria (DHSV) Chief Executive Officer Susan McKee.

“While some types of oral cancer are decreasing now that people are smoking less, tongue and oropharyngeal cancers are on the rise. We want to support oral health professionals in the state to identify people most at risk and reduce the impact of this disease on Victorians.”

Oral health professionals play an important role in the prevention and detection of oral cancer. DHSV is leading a state-wide program supporting oral health professionals to recognise risk factors and detect oral cancer early.

A pilot in community dental agencies and private dental practices across Victoria showed oral health professionals were having more conversations with clients about smoking cessation, along with an increased focus on oral mucosal examinations, improved referral practices and sharing learning with peers. Following the pilot’s success, training and information is being developed this year which will be offered to all Victorian oral health professionals.

“Early detection of oral cancer can save a person’s life,” says Professor Michael McCullough from The University of Melbourne Dental School, a key partner in the program.

“This program will equip oral health professionals with the skills to detect early signs of oral cancer. Oral cancer screening takes only a short time and is an integral element of routine care.”

Treatment for oral cancer can be more effective at an early stage of the disease. Yet oral cancer is often diagnosed late, resulting in one in three people dying of it within five years.

Smoking and alcohol consumption are key risk factors for oral cancer, and human papilloma virus (HPV) infection is linked to over 70% of oropharyngeal cancer cases. People over the age of 45, especially men, are at increased risk, as are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people in low income groups.

The Oral Cancer Screening and Prevention Program is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services under the Victorian Cancer Plan.

The program is led by Dental Health Services Victoria in partnership with the University of Melbourne Dental School, the Australian Dental Association (Victorian Branch), La Trobe University Department of Dentistry and the Department of Health and Human Services.