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A pocket of Parkinson’s

Emma Breheny

Researchers recently identified a cluster of people living with Parkinson’s disease in the north-west of Victoria, a region known for its farming of lentils and barley. Joint research by Monash University and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health has uncovered higher prevalence of Parkinson’s disease in the region by mapping data from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to local government areas.

The study pinpointed four local government areas with higher than average rates of Parkinson’s disease: Buloke, Horsham, Northern Grampians and Yarriambiack. All four areas farm barley and lentils in large quantities, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, resulting in high levels of pesticide use.

The researchers were keen to prove or disprove the assertion that Parkinson’s rates do not differ between urban and rural areas, after international evidence and their own research showed a possible link between the use of pesticides and Parkinson’s disease.

‘It raises the question of whether that cluster is associated with environmental factors or whether it’s because individuals in those areas have genetic predisposition,’ Professor Meg Morris, FACP, a physiotherapist with many years of experience researching the disease, says.

Worldwide, researchers are working to identify the cause of Parkinson’s, approaching the question from a number of angles. As Meg explains, these threads range from environmental factors, like pesticides and heavy metals, to the role of diet and genetics.

There’s also a mismatch between the growing number of people with Parkinson’s and the availability of skilled physios who understand their needs.
‘One theory is that it could be a multi-factorial disease. But there’s also the possibility of different types of Parkinson’s, based on the differing symptoms. Some people present with more of a posture and gait disorder whereas other people have slowness and tremor.’

Professor Malcolm Horne, a neurologist at the Florey Institute who has also researched the epidemiology of the disease, believes the research confirms current literature.

‘While it’s interesting to know of the clustering in Victoria, clustering in rural regions has been known for many years and there have been suspicions of this in the Goulburn Valley and north-west Tasmania.’

For Meg, the research reinforces the need to know where physiotherapy services are most needed and to direct workforce development efforts appropriately.

‘It’s a worldwide phenomenon that people in regional, remote and rural communities have more challenges in accessing specialist services for Parkinson’s, but there’s also a mismatch between the growing number of people with Parkinson’s and the availability of skilled physios who understand their needs.’

She applauds Parkinson’s Victoria and other groups for ensuring Parkinson’s nurses are available in regional areas in Victoria, however the need for physiotherapy services specifically tailored to those with Parkinson’s is still needed.

‘Regardless of cause, people still need really good symptomatic management, which is where physiotherapy comes in. The earlier people get physiotherapy services, the better.’

 

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