The number of people with Parkinson’s disease will soon grow to pandemic proportions—and the medical community needs to mobilize to respond to the impending public health threat—experts say.
“Pandemics are usually equated with infectious diseases like Zika, influenza, and HIV,” says Ray Dorsey, a neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “But neurological disorders are now the leading cause of disability in the world and the fastest growing is Parkinson’s disease.”
A commentary by Dorsey and Bastiaan Bloem of Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands, appears in JAMA Neurology and builds on Dorsey’s Global Burden of Disease study which appeared in The Lancet Neurology in September. That tracked the prevalence of neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, stroke, epilepsy, meningitis, encephalitis, multiple sclerosis, and migraine, both globally and by country.
In the new commentary, the authors point out that between 1990 and 2015, the prevalence of Parkinson’s more than doubled and it is estimated that 6.9 million people across the globe have the disease.
By 2040, that number of people with Parkinson’s will grow to 14.2 million as the population ages—a rate of growth that will outpace that of Alzheimer’s. Further, the estimates are likely conservative due underreporting, misdiagnosis, and increasing life expectancy.
To combat the growing pandemic, the medical community should pursue the same strategies that, in 15 years, transformed HIV from an unknown and fatal illness into a highly treatable chronic condition.
“People with HIV infection simply demanded better treatments and successfully rallied for both awareness and new treatments, literally chaining themselves to the doors of pharmaceutical companies,” Bloem says. “Today, HIV has become a treatable, chronic disease.
“This upcoming increase in the number of Parkinson patients is striking and frankly worrisome. We feel it is urgent that people with Parkinson’s go to the pharmaceutical industry and policymakers alike, demanding immediate action to fight this enormous threat.”
Researchers say the Parkinson’s community must come together and focus its activism in several ways:
Support a better understanding of the environmental, genetic, and behavioral causes and risk factors for Parkinson’s to help prevent its onset.
Increase access to care—an estimated 40 percent of people with the disease in both the US and Europe don’t see a neurologist and the number is far greater in developing nations.
Advocate for increases in research funding for the disease.
Lower cost of treatments—many patients in low-income countries don’t have access to drugs that are both lifesaving and improve quality of life.
“For too long the Parkinson’s community has been too quiet on these issues,” Dorsey says. “Building on the AIDS community’s motto of ‘silence=death,’ the Parkinson’s community should make their voices heard. The current and future burden of this debilitating disease depends upon their action.”