A summer research project by two medical students from Nelson has discovered that the Nelson region has one of the highest rates of Crohn's disease yet found in the world.
Gabrielle Kemp and Peter Meffan spent 10 weeks analysing data compiled over a decade by Nelson gastroenterologist Darryl Fry and specialist nurse Belinda Heaphy, who oversee the care of just under 500 inflammatory bowel disease sufferers in the Nelson region.
Their findings are in line with a similar project in Christchurch and a third in Geelong, near Melbourne over recent years.
The researchers' supervisor, associate professor Richard Gearry of the University of Otago's Christchurch campus, said the results raised questions about rates throughout the country and the western world.
"They've worked really hard on this, and it's really exciting."
The study reflected the fact that rates of Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, both debilitating inflammatory bowel diseases, were probably high throughout New Zealand, providing an important new piece of information to the medical community.
"We needed this research to show that. Other gastroenterologists throughout the country might feel that, but unless you do the research and show it, you never really know if it's the case or not."
It made researchers think about why New Zealand had such high rates of Crohn's in particular.
Genes played a role but were unlikely to be the sole explanation. There might be an environmental factor.
"We wonder whether it's something to do with the western lifestyle now, which could be diet-related. Is it something to do with the hygiene hypothesis? In the old days we were exposed to lots of bugs and bacteria and our bodies got used to it, now in a clean society, those things are less prevalent. Or is it something that we just don't know yet?"
There were further questions about similarities in results in the Geelong, Christchurch and Nelson studies. "Could it be that the rates are high in Australia because the environment in Australia is similar to the environment here? In Asia the rates are much lower, but the genetics and the environment are quite different."
He said it was only because Dr Fry and Ms Heaphy had kept record of all the diagnoses over the past 10 years that the project was possible.
"They've done a great job."
Mr Meffan was in Christchurch this week, with Ms Kemp joining him tomorrow to present their findings, along with those of others in the summer studentship programme.
Ms Kemp, entering her fourth year of medical studies, said the project had been hard work but had encouraged her to look at doing more research in future.
"It was lovely to come home over the summer and continue my learning doing something that was quite worthwhile for the medical profession."
- © Fairfax NZ News