Farmer heritage might have hidden health risks

Farmer heritage might include iron-overload gene


Farm Online News
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Does your farming ancestry have a hidden health cost?

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James and Anna Barclay, Wagga Wagga, NSW are speaking out about the risks of leaving symptoms unchecked.

James and Anna Barclay, Wagga Wagga, NSW are speaking out about the risks of leaving symptoms unchecked.

Generations of Australian farmers who are descendant from Irish, English, Scottish, Italian or northern European families may be predisposed to a condition with vague symptoms but potentially serious health impacts.

Haemochromatosis is the most common genetic disorder in Australia that leads your body to absorb too much iron from food you eat. The excess iron overloads body tissues, damages organs and can cause premature death.

Although one in 200 Australians have haemochromatosis and one in seven carry the gene, the genetic test for the condition was only developed in 1996 and many cancer and liver-related deaths may be the consequence of undiagnosed haemochromatosis.

Haemochromatosis Australia President Dr Dianne Prince said the gene was more prevalent in families of Celtic origin descended from Viking stock.

It is believed to be a genetic mutation to help these ancestors deal with intermittent iron supplies in available food.

"With Australia's high migrant population and many farmers having Anglo-Saxon family ancestry from Ireland, England, Scotland, northern France, northern Spain, Italy, Argentina, Brazil, it is useful for people to look into their family history for unexplained health issues," Dr Prince said.

Symptoms include tiredness and aching joints which often can be explained away as being the consequence of doing hard physical work - as was the case with James Barclay from Wagga Wagga in New South Wales who was recently diagnosed with the condition and liver complications.

Sheryl Conole, a dairy farmers' daughter from Malanda in north Queensland, had symptoms of tiredness, lack of energy and aching bones for years but always found a reason to explain them, before being diagnosed with haemochromatosis in 2006. Two siblings have since been diagnosed.

 Sheryl Conole, a dairy farmers' daughter from Malanda in north Queensland was diagnosed with haemochromatosis in 2006.

Sheryl Conole, a dairy farmers' daughter from Malanda in north Queensland was diagnosed with haemochromatosis in 2006.

At Benalla in Victoria, Judi McDonald - whose family history includes two First Fleet convicts who helped settle Norfolk Island - was actually pleased to be diagnosed with haemochromatosis because it explained health issues she'd been dealing with for years.

Judi was alerted to her susceptibility by a note to readers inside the family history book by Peter McKay A nation within a nation: the Lucas Clan in Australia which said: 'If you are related to these people you are twice as likely to have haemochromatosis'.

Dr Prince said it is worthwhile for everyone to look into their family history, to resolve health issues that may be linked to undiagnosed haemochromatosis. Once diagnosed, the condition is treated using the simple process of blood donation - known as venesection - to reduce iron levels.

 Judi McDonald

Judi McDonald

'There are people with the condition who, in hindsight, should have been diagnosed decades earlier. This would have reduced the suffering, medical cost and even loss of life that results from iron overload," Dr Prince said.

"This has been confirmed by recent UK research that showed undiagnosed haemochromatosis quadruples the risk of liver disease, doubles risk of arthritis and causes higher risk of diabetes and chronic pain."

After his late diagnosis, James Barclay was found to have cirrhosis and liver cancer as a consequence of untreated haemochromatosis and has been undergoing cancer treatment for the past two years. He and wife Anne are now speaking out about their experience so that others can learn from it.

"Men need to be more proactive with our health and not just dismiss symptoms as being caused by gout or old age or hard work," James said.

Despite the health complications, James and Anne believe in the power of positive thinking and have de-stressed their life on a small farm outside Wagga while James has cancer treatment.

Dr Prince said the Barclays have an important story to share which they are doing through Haemochromatosis Australia's Iron out your health awareness campaign.

Haemochromatosis Australia is urging young people to ask their doctor for a blood test to learn if they carry the condition which is equally likely in both sexes.

Haemochromatosis Australia President Dr Dianne Prince

Haemochromatosis Australia President Dr Dianne Prince

To find out if you might be rusting from within and need to iron out your health, visit the website ha.org.au or call the help line on 1300 019 028.

Haemochromatosis Australia is a volunteer organisation that aims to raise awareness of the condition and build a national registry.

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