Arthritis should be on our minds today

Last updated 05:00 28/09/2012

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Chris Trotter

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In just a few years they'll outnumber Maori. More than three-quarters of a million people, 17 per cent of the population, will be bringing some kind of arthritic condition to an already overburdened health system.

OPINION: By 2020 about 200,000 New Zealanders will find themselves to a greater or lesser degree disabled by rheumatoid arthritis alone, a condition that's been compared to having broken glass embedded in your joints.

There was a time when I would have dismissed statistics like these with an off-hand: "Oh, come on, it's just arthritis."

Not even the fact that my wife has been working for Arthritis NZ for more than a decade left me very much better-informed than the average Kiwi.

In fact, it was only when her employers asked me to help promote their annual appeal, and flooded me with screeds of information, that I truly began to understand what arthritis is all about.

For a start, it's not just an "old person's disease".

As many children live with arthritis as live with cancer, and many of them live under a regime of medication almost as taxing on their young bodies as the cancer sufferer's chemotherapy. These "kids with arthritis" are genuine heroes whose daily struggles go largely unnoticed by the general public.

Then there are Arthritis NZ's poster-people: prominent Kiwis who have risen above the condition to achieve things that most of us can only dream about. Like the international cricket umpire, Billy Bowden; the young V8 race-car champion Matt Lockwood; former All Black hooker Anton Oliver; and, in this Olympic year, the extraordinary Mahe Drysdale, New Zealand's gold medal winner in the single sculls.

Out of the spotlight are tens of thousands more Kiwis who have learned to live with, and rise above, arthritis.

I've got to know some of them, heard their stories, and wondered why this often excruciating condition receives so little attention from just about everyone.

Because it's not as if arthritis is socially or economically cheap.

In a recently released report, Fit for Work: Musculoskeletal Disorders and the New Zealand Labour Market, it is estimated that these "MSDs" (of which arthritis is by far the most prevalent) cost New Zealand $5.57 billion per year and account for at least 25 per cent of total annual healthcare costs.

MSDs are also the second-largest category of conditions attracting sickness and invalids benefits. And believe me when I say those numbers are only going to get worse. Already, more and more of us baby boomers are beginning to feel the twinges, the aches and the sharp pains in our joints signalling one of the more than 140 forms of the condition. Arthritis isn't going away.

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What does need to go away, however, is our complacency.

A condition that is going to affect one in six New Zealanders deserves more than our offhand dismissal. It should be at the front of our thinking about healthcare in the 21st century.

We all know what the pink ribbon stands for, and happily pin the Cancer Society's plastic daffodils to our lapels, but Arthritis NZ - like so many other charitable institutions in this country - struggles for public attention.

In the political economy of charities the biblical observation that, "For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him", has a depressingly familiar ring.

So, if you're out on the streets today and you're accosted by someone offering you a bright orange gerbera flower, please, don't walk on by. Arthritis NZ's staff and volunteers assist tens of thousands of New Zealanders every year and need every dollar you can spare.

Rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and gout - all of these forms of arthritis can be managed, but they cannot, yet, be cured. With a population that's growing older with every passing year, we need to know much more and do much more about arthritis.

Think about that twinge in your knee - and give until it stops hurting.

- The Dominion Post


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