HL Deb 26 June 1997 vol 580 cc1639-41

3.14 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

In National Osteoporosis Week, what action they are taking to increase public awareness of preventive measures and treatment of this debilitating condition.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, the Government are aware of the devastating effect that that condition can have on both women and men who suffer from it. Improving public awareness about prevention and treatment will be part of our new public health programme. We shall continue to fund the excellent work of the National Osteoporosis Society. I am pleased to tell the noble Baroness that in one of the very rare fine intervals this week, my honourable friend the Minister for Public Health and I took part in a splendidly named event, Take Your Bones for a Walk. We both enjoyed it and we were joined by about 50 Members of both Houses of Parliament.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am delighted that she went on the walk. It is extremely important to bring out the point that it is not only women who suffer from osteoporosis. One in 12 men aged over 50 suffer from it. Is the Minister aware that the estimated annual cost to the health service of treating men's fractures caused by osteoporosis is about £150 million? It is particularly important to have follow-up treatment to prevent recurrence and a second fracture. Is the Minister also aware that people who fall suffer from a fracture only if they have osteoporotic bones? Will she make it clear that the condition affects not only women but also men; and it can also affect young people, including athletes and ballet dancers, who may suffer from stress fractures if they have been on very restrictive diets?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for reinforcing the point which I made briefly in my original Answer—that the condition unfortunately affects both men and women, and also young people. I understand that there are about 60,000 hip fractures every year which are attributed to osteoporosis and the total cost to the NHS is about £700 million each year for treating that condition. Anything that we can all do to reinforce public health messages about taking walks and having an appropriate diet is both useful for individuals and helpful to the health service.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the work that has been done at the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham? The orthopaedic surgeons there have found an unusually high number of osteoporotic stress fractures among young male farmers. Will the Minister say whether her department has had time to consider my request for £35,000 for funding further research into that matter?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am aware of the extremely unfortunate situation where, as the noble Countess says, several young men who were both active and much younger than the average age for osteoporosis appeared to have developed those symptoms. At the moment that research is not funded by the Department of Health but I understand that the National Osteoporosis Society is looking into the matter further.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the noble Earl, Lord Munster, tabled a Question last week for Written Answer asking for more details about the nature and extent of the disease? Will the Minister make quite sure that, having regard to the limited publicity given to Answers to Written Questions, in that particular case the fullest possible publicity is given to her Answer?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I shall be delighted to do so. I thank my noble friend for drawing attention to the Written Question. Of course, that system provides an opportunity to give more detail than it is possible to give on the Floor of the House. If my noble friend can suggest further ways in which to make Written Answers, which, as he says, are sometimes buried at the back of Hansard, more available I shall be delighted to follow his recommendations.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, is the Minister aware that general practitioners who are fundholders have been able to use their resources in order to provide screening for their patient population? What will happen in the future on that score? What plans do the Government have to improve links between primary and secondary care with regard to osteoporosis?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, as I understand it, the advisory group on osteoporosis, which reported to the department at the time at which the noble Baroness was a Minister there, recommended that there was no need for national screening in that area. But individual health authorities and GPs can make available that opportunity if they wish to do so.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, perhaps I may make it clear that I was referring to high-risk screening.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, given the high incidence of that extremely debilitating illness, is there not a strong case now to launch a major public screening programme? Medical science now has the necessary equipment to do that. I am thinking in particular of bone density scanning which brings quickly to light how serious the problem is for an individual.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, my noble friend provides me with a helpful opportunity to answer that question and the supplementary question from the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege. There is clearly an interest in developing screening programmes for those people who have already been demonstrated to be at high risk. But there has been no suggestion yet that national screening for the condition should be available or would be profitable. On the other hand, the Royal College of Physicians is working on national guidelines to be distributed within a few months, as I understand it, which may indicate the way to go.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, can the noble Baroness help me to understand the relative importance which this Government—or perhaps in some senses the previous Government—attach to the terrible disease of osteoporosis by telling me how many people are suffering from it? How much money is currently being spent on research into prevention and treatment? How does this compare, for example, with the number of people suffering from AIDS, and the amount of taxpayers' money which is being spent on research and prevention of AIDS?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am afraid it is not possible for me to give exact figures on the distribution and numbers of people with osteoporosis. As I said in response to an earlier question, there are about 60,000 fractures a year which can be attributed in some degree to osteoporosis. I shall write to the noble Lord as regards research moneys.