Melanesia may have an undiagnosed oral cancer epidemic

3:39 pm on 3 September 2015

An Australian surgeon says the high levels of smoking, alcohol abuse and betel nut chewing in Melanesia have elevated oral cancer rates to epidemic levels.

Betelnut-stained mouth, Papua New Guinea.

Betelnut use is one reason given for Melanesia's high rates of oral cancer. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Associate Professor Carsten Palme from the University of Sydney is an ear, nose and throat surgeon who has studied the disease in Papua New Guinea.

He says Melanesia has the highest rates of oral cancer in the world, and he believes there are many more who haven't been diagnosed.

"I think there is already an epidemic and we need to sort of gather a little bit more data to quantify exactly the number of cases. But it appears from all reports and anecdotal evidence that the numbers are massive when compared to the Western World."

Casten Palme says high levels of substance abuse among Melanesia's young people could mean rising rates of oral cancer for many years to come.