Specialist nurses ready for surge of cancer from asbestos

December 17, 2013 at 11:48 AM

Health authorities are warning Australia can expect an 80 per cent increase in new mesothelioma diagnoses by 2020 and have begun preparing a specialised nurse workforce to help deal with the influx of new patients.

The Lung Foundation of Australia has paid for 10 specialist nurses to be trained to lead treatment planning.

And in Canberra, from next year, in a national first, construction workers will require mandatory asbestos training to prevent new cases emerging over coming decades.

Australia already has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world with 661 new cases documented in 2008 and 606 deaths attributed to the disease in 2011.

The predicted epidemic is the result of the rampant use of asbestos in insulation and building materials from the 1950s to the 1970s. The cancer does not become active until 20 to 40 years after initial exposure.

Canberra nurse Jenny Northey is one of the 10 new national graduates and will lead local treatment of patients in a city with one of the worst asbestos exposure records.

Judy Rafferty, the Lung Foundation's nurse educator for asbestos-related disease, said the nurses were given specialised intensive training to enable them to best care for mesothelioma sufferers and support their families.

All nurses undertook the training voluntarily - completing it outside of their regular working hours throughout the year through an online education program, clinical activities within their own hospitals and attending a four-day workshop in Sydney.

Ms Rafferty praised their efforts, saying they would form a national mesothelioma nurse special interest group and become nurse leaders in their communities.

The ACT secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Dean Hall, said the nurses were an important step in providing victims with support. Male construction workers made up the bulk of Australians exposed to the deadly fibres before asbestos was outlawed in the 1980s.

"It's really sad we need these new nurses but it is important we are prepared," Mr Hall said.

The ACT would be first in Australia to require all construction workers to undergo a four-hour mandatory asbestos training licence from the new year, he said.

For five years, construction apprentices have been receiving the training and Mr Hall said it had become apparent that they were the ones alert to the potential of asbestos being found on old building sites.

"All the notifications of asbestos were coming in from the young kids who knew what to look for, so we are going to extend that training right across the workforce," he said.

Canberra's extensive new construction phase in the 1960s and '70s had left a legacy that was still claiming lives - mesothelioma was now approaching the same death rate as bone marrow and ovarian cancer.

''It's a tragedy that generations of construction workers have been exposed. They are going to pay a high price for going out and trying to earn a living. We need to do everything we can to prevent new generations from being exposed," Mr Hall said.

By Emma McDonald

Canberra Times