Port-wine stains: can we make them disappear?

Margaret M Stewart
Med J Aust 1996; 164 (6): 325.
Published online: 3 August 1999
>Advances in technology and well documented clinical studies continue to expand the list of disorders amenable to laser therapy. In this issue, Tan and Vinciullo report their study of 186 children and adults with port-wine stains (capillary malformations) treated with a flashlamp-pumped tunable dye laser in Perth, Western Australia. They confirm reports from other countries of its efficacy and safety. Preferential uptake of yellow laser light (wavelength, 585 nm) by haemoglobin, combined with very short (450-µs) laser pulses, ensures maximum damage to small blood vessels with minimum heat transfer to surrounding tissue (selective photothermolysis).1 Good-to-excellent responses were seen in 78% of patients. The results are similar to those of a recent study at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH), Sydney, and Flinders Medical Centre, Adelaide.2 Treatment failures may be related to depth and diameter of blood vessels, as the laser beam penetrates only about 1 mm. Given the well documented, sometimes severe but often hidden, psychological impact of a disfiguring port-wine stain, its potential complications and the lack of significant therapeutic alternatives, these results are impressive.

However, critical issues apart from efficacy and safety include cost and access to treatment. The RPAH/Flinders study estimated the cost of treating a port-wine stain involving one cheek to be about $700-$1800 in an adult. This cost includes staff and topical or local anaesthesia, but not general anaesthesia, which is needed for most children. We must also add the laser capital costs (currently $150 000-$200 000) and substantial running costs.

Will all patients with port-wine stains have access to a treatment now proven to be efficacious and safe? Ideally, all affected patients should be assessed at or soon after birth and treatment begun in the first two years of life and completed before the potential psychological impact of being a "marked child"3 has developed. Until recently at RPAH the estimated time to completion of treatment for children after assessment was 3.5 years. The service has been advertised only to dermatologists, because resources are too limited to treat the estimated potential number of patients, although the recent purchase of a third generation laser may increase the number able to be treated.

Public hospital dermatological laser services vary between States and generally range from severely restricted to non-existent. Now that Australian studies have addressed issues of efficacy and cost, it is up to State Governments and the Federal Government to urgently establish appropriate funding arrangements. There is a large backlog of older children and adults who would benefit greatly from treatment. In the medium to long term, even with current technology, these patients could be treated, leaving a steady-state situation with only children in their first 2-4 years needing treatment.

Treatment with the yellow-light laser is not confined to port-wine stains, but can be used for many other conditions characterised by a real or apparent excess of small blood vessels close to the surface of the skin. Proliferating or ulcerating capillary haemangiomas that affect vital structures (e.g., eyes, nose, mouth, pharynx and genitalia) in babies and young children have been shown in both Australia and other countries to respond to treatment with the flashlamp-pumped dye laser. This treatment is often urgent or semiurgent, depending on the rate of proliferation of the haemangioma or rate of ulceration and tissue destruction.

Has technology in this area gone as far as it can? The answer is no. Newer lasers are now available that are able to operate several times faster than the initial pumped dye lasers and may require less maintenance. We await lasers that are more portable, cheaper and able to treat at a deeper skin level than current technology allows.

Timely and affordable access to treatment for any patient, young or old, affected with a port-wine stain is the goal. Whether this is realised depends on a commitment by State and federal health funding bodies to recognise the extent of the problem, acknowledge the long term benefits of early treatment and provide an adequate funding mechanism.

Margaret M Stewart
Visiting Medical Officer, Department of Dermatology
Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, NSW

  1. Anderson RR, Parrish JA. Selective photothermolysis: precise microsurgery by selective absorption of pulsed radiation. Science 1983; 220: 524-527.
  2. Stewart M, Hailey D, Angel A. Yellow light lasers in dermatology. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1995: 1-43.
  3. Lanigan SW, Cotterill JA. Psychological disabilities amongst patients with port wine stains. Br J Dermatol 1989; 121: 209-215.
  • Margaret M Stewart



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