New Zealand has world's highest death rate from motor neuron disease - study

A stock photo of a Hospice Nurse visiting an Elderly male patient who is receiving hospice/palliative care.
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A global study has revealed New Zealand has the highest mortality rate from motor neuron disease, with two Kiwis dying from the disease each week.

Data on neurological disorders from the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study found there are 2.2 deaths per 100,000 people from motor neuron disease in New Zealand.

Motor neuron disease affects more than 800 Kiwis and refers to a group of diseases that kill muscle nerve cells, affecting people's movement, speech and ability to breathe. The most common type of the disease is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS.

According to the study, the risk of developing the disease is one in 300 and most people with the disease will die within 15-20 months of diagnosis.

The mortality rate is just ahead of Australia and the United Kingdom, and while further research is needed to understand what is contributing to the high death rate, it is believed it may be linked to genetic predispositions, especially among Māori and Pacific people.

Roughly 3600 experts from 45 countries have contributed to the GBD's study, which is the world's largest systematic, scientific effort to qualify the magnitude of health loss from more than 300 major diseases and injuries by age, sex and population. It is coordinated from the University of Washington.

Professor Valery Feigin, director of the National Institute for Stroke and Applied Neurosciences at Auckland University of Technology and co-chair of the GBD's neurology section, said the study was significant to understanding trends in health loss.

"We knew that neurological disorders were prevalent, but we didn't realise how big the problem was or just how fast it was growing," he said.

"We never had estimates of the prevalence of neurological disorders, not only in New Zealand but in any other country," Mr Feigin told Newshub.

The study also found that neurological disorders are the leading cause of disability, and the problem will only increase with an ageing population.

Mr Feigin also said New Zealand doesn't have enough neurologists.

"In New Zealand, the waiting time for a neurology consultation could be more than a year. We currently have 36 full-time equivalent neurologists, but according to our estimates we need 86 full-time equivalent neurologists".

Neurology experts from around the world will gather in Auckland on Tuesday for the Global Burden of Disease Brain Summit, where more papers on neurology will be released.