The Mayans worshipped it, the British rarely see it and in the UAE it's there nearly every day, but the sun can be dangerous, particularly on young skin. As it beats down on the Emirates, it bathes us in ultraviolet (UV) radiation. You can't feel UV - it's not the heat on your skin nor the brightness of the sun, and yet the link between UV exposure and skin cancer is well established.
As summer kicks in, bringing UV radiation levels in Abu Dhabi to the "very high" or "extreme" end of the spectrum, what can we do to protect our children and make them more sun-aware? Children are particularly at risk, not necessarily because their skins are more sensitive to the sun, but because they tend to spend more time outdoors than adults, and have more time ahead of them in which any skin cancer can develop. The disease comes in two groups, as Dr Andre Rizk, chief of medical oncology at the Gulf International Cancer Centre in Abu Dhabi, explains: "One is related to the accumulation of exposure during your lifetime, so the more you are exposed [to the sun], the greater your risk. These are melanomas. The other group, which is basically the basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, are more related to an insult [the medical term for, in this case, sunburn] that happens at any time, and how many sunburns happen. Melanoma can be deadly if not caught early enough. The others are less aggressive and less likely to be fatal but nevertheless can cause a lot of grief with mutilation, surgeries, cosmetic issues."
The first rule, as explained by Rizk, is simple: "Children should not sunbathe - with or without protection." While the overriding medical concern is to keep children out of the sun as much as possible, Rizk acknowledges that children want and need to play outside, "but there is no reason why they have to be in the sun between 10am and 3pm. Activities should be done before or after this period, when the sun is not at its zenith. You are already decreasing their exposure by up to 60 per cent just by doing this."
Rizk also advises that children be covered with UV sun protection clothing that reaches right down their wrists and ankles, "for as long as they can be reasoned with", he says, acknowledging the challenge that poses to parents. Hats, too, are a must. "A lot of young children don't have a lot of hair so the scalp is also exposed. The scalp can be very dangerous because in the future they will have hair and they won't be able to see what is on their scalp."
Fortunately, UV protective beach clothing for children is becoming more widely available in the UAE. Beyond the Beach stocks several brands and Mothercare and Mamas & Papas have ranges for babies and toddlers. Other products that will help limit children's sun exposure are the pop-up beach tents and sunshades for buggies and prams. Just Kidding in Dubai stocks the sunshades for Bugaboos and Mamas & Papas stocks shades for its own range of prams. In the car, you can try to get hold of special UV window tint; otherwise stick-on sunblinds can be purchased relatively cheaply from most children's shops.
There has been some controversy that sun-awareness advice is leading to an increase in cases of vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is vital for healthy bones and is created by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight. High deficiency rates have been recorded in Australia and in the UAE, in part because of cultural practices but also as people simply avoid strong sun. But Rizk says: "It is a trade-off and vitamin D replacement can be taken in many other ways, in milk and in pharmaceutical form; but once we have advanced cancer we can't do much about it, especially melanoma."
He adds: "You don't need to be out when the sun is at its zenith to produce vitamin D. I don't think the vitamin D issue should be used as justification for exposure to the sun." Above all, sun protection should be fun. The UV tops come in some very cool styles, and if you let your children chose their own hats and sunglasses they can do a bit of dressing-up on the beach. Nivea and Boots make fabulous bright green and blue sun creams. By starting them young we can make them realise that putting on a hat and sunscreen when they leave the house is normal. Above all expats, particularly from the northern hemisphere, need to re-educate themselves; you're not in Kansas, Blackpool, Stockholm, or Paris now, Dorothy.
Thirty years ago, faced with an increasing incidence of melanoma and mounting evidence of a link between sun exposure and skin cancer, the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria in Australia commissioned an advertising company to come up with a slogan for its public education campaign. Peter Best and Alex Stitt got to work and in 1980 Sid the lisping seagull tap-danced across television screens exhorting everyone to "slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat", launching an enduringly successful campaign.
In 2007, the motto was updated to include "seek, slide", meaning seek some shade and slide on some sunglasses. The campaign has been now been adopted by several other countries around the world, including the US and Canada. Several schools in the UAE now have their own "slip, slop, slap" campaigns, and have installed sunshades in playgrounds. For a UV forecast for the UAE visit www.timeanddate.com/weather/united-arab-emirates. Click on your emirate and then "extended weather forecast". Alternatively, visit www.weatheronline.co.uk/ untdarabemirates/abudhabi/ Uvindex.htm.