2016 April: Study finds Parkinsons Cluster in northern Grampians and Loddon Mallee Regions

Study finds Parkinson’s disease cluster in Northern Grampians and Loddon Mallee regions

A cluster of Parkinson’s disease has been discovered in a key Victorian barley, chick pea and lentil farming region where researchers say its prevalence is up to 78 per cent higher than the rest of the state.

The discovery by a team of health researchers and scientists has sparked calls for urgent research into links with pesticides and other farming techniques used in the Grampians and Loddon Mallee regions.

The abnormally high rates were found in four neighbouring local government areas in the north west that all produce barley and pulses (chickpeas, beans and lentils), by a joint Monash University and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health study.

They report the rate of Parkinson’s was 78 per cent higher than the state average of .5 per cent in the Buloke Shire, 76 per cent higher in Horsham, 57 per cent higher in the Northern Grampians and 34 per cent higher in Yarriambiack.

The research, expected to be published in late 2016, was funded by Parkinson’s Victoria and lead by a husband and wife duo: health services researcher Dr Darshini Ayton and neuroscientist Dr Scott Ayton. 

Their work with Dr Narelle Warren builds on international studies that have already found strong links between the pesticides Rotenone and Paraquat, and Parkinson’s disease.

Although people living in the identified areas are more likely to develop Parkinson’s than those in other areas, the prevalence of the condition is still only about 1 per cent of the population in those communities and researchers say is not cause for panic.

The idea for a geographical study was conceived when Dr Darshini Ayton came home one night to tell her husband all these people from farming areas she’d interviewed blamed pesticides for their Parkinson’s disease. 

“Because he’s a laboratory scientist, he said they use pesticides in high doses to induce Parkinson’s disease in a laboratory,” she said. “That’s when we started working together on the project.” 

Hoping to determine whether there was a greater likelihood of developing Parkinson’s in the country than the city (there’s not), they overlayed data from the pharmaceutical benefits scheme with ABS data and discovered something else entirely: a cluster.

“We were shocked…It is a surprise but we’re really now looking for the answers to it,” Dr Darshini Ayton said. “This research by no means says that pesticides caused Parkinson’s disease here but we need to do further research to find out what actually happened in these four areas.”

Their analysis was done using percentages, rather than raw numbers, to account for differences in population size and age.

Barry Clugston, 69, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about eight years ago, lives in the Northern Grampians and has spent most of his life in farming regions. 

He believes it’s possible that chemicals used in pulse farming could be linked to his disease but wants to see proof.  “There’s a lot of discussion in the community about these things and yet nobody can prove it,” he said. 

“The area that’s been detected is a key broad acre cereal growing area of Victoria so it would be a high concentration of chemicals being used there.

“If chemicals are one of the causes for Parkinson’s I’d be really keen to have some scientific basis.”

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological condition that affects about 27,000 people in Victoria and 70,000 nationally, which Parkinson’s Victoria chair, Associate Professor David Finkelstein, said is expected to double over the next 15 years.

Associate Professor Finkelstein said there was a growing international body of research pointing to a link between pesticides and Parkinson’s, but “no smoking gun”.  “All these little bits of evidence are coming together to point to pesticides,” he said.

“We compare what we found with what’s been found overseas, different research teams using different research methods, are finding the same thing.”