New risk factors associated with inflammatory bowel disease

Health researchers at the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Otago University, have found evidence of new risk factors associated with a debilitating illness called Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

Dr Richard Gearry, a researcher at the School, has been working on a study looking at all those with IBD in Canterbury. He is presenting his interim findings at the NZ IBD Symposium in Christchurch on Friday June 25, data which indicates two new associations with IBD, linked to pregnancy and early childhood.

"In a survey of 400 people in Canterbury with Crohn's disease, one type of IBD, our results indicate so far that if a mother smokes during pregnancy her child is at almost twice the risk of developing IBD in later life,' says Dr Gearry.

"However, if a mother breast feeds, this reduces her child's chances of developing Crohn's Disease by a significant percentage; in fact 50%. The longer she breast feeds the less chance her child will have of getting Crohn's disease. This may be because of the protective bacteria children get through breast feeding."

Inflammatory Bowel Disease is a chronic and lifelong condition which usually starts between the ages of 15 and 35. It is on a steep increase in western countries and results in diarrhoea, weight loss, abdominal pain, bleeding from the bowel and often multiple operations; but why there is an increase in developed countries is a mystery.

Gastroenterologist Dr Gearry is working on this major study to try to determine the specific genetic, environmental and immune factors that may cause IBD. He is trying to track down all those with IBD in Canterbury, and give them a questionnaire and blood test. The same questionnaire is given to a randomly selected control group.

"Other studies have shown a range of risk factors that could be associated with Crohn's Disease, but they have been much smaller and don't look at all those affected in a particular region, so they are not so definitive. There are still a lot of grey areas."

"The Canterbury IBD Project has national and international health benefits as it'll enable us to more clearly determine those factors linked to higher or lower incidences of IBD, and will greatly assist in the prevention, diagnosis and management of this nasty disease. At present we are simply ameliorating symptoms year in year out, and this is costing a great deal because we can't cure IBD yet."

Dr Gearry says he is still looking for people with IBD in Canterbury. Extrapolating from other studies, there are about 1100 people in the region who are likely to suffer from this chronic condition. But he also warns that it is not the same illness as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and they are two different conditions.

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