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How rheumatoid arthritis is managed has changed markedly over the last decade, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease-one where the body's immune system attacks its own tissues. Painful swelling and stiffness of the joints are hallmark symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

The report, A snapshot of rheumatoid arthritis, shows people with rheumatoid arthritis were 2.9 times as likely as those without the condition to report severe or very severe pain. They were also 1.7 times as likely to report high or very high levels of psychological distress, and 3.3 times as likely to report poor health status.

'According to recent statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, rheumatoid arthritis is estimated to affect about 2% of Australians. This condition can develop at any age, but is more common in those aged 55 and older and is more common in women than in men,' said AIHW spokesperson Louise York.  

The report shows that while the prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis remained relatively unchanged over the last decade, the way this condition is managed has changed significantly during this time.

In 2003, a new class of medicine, referred to as biologic disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (bDMARDs), became available for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in Australia, broadening the treatment options.

As expected, the use of these new treatments has risen significantly in recent years.

'The number of times pharmacotherapy, such as corticosteroids and bDMARDs, was administered during admitted hospital care more than doubled from 2004-05 to 2010-11, up from 2,608 to 6,932 occasions,' Ms York said.

The hospitalisation rate for the condition also rose from 30 hospitalisations per 100,000 people to 53 per 100,000 people between 2001-02 and 2010-11, although it is uncertain how much of this increase is attributable to pharmaceutical interventions provided in hospitals.

In 2008-09, the estimated direct health expenditure alone on rheumatoid arthritis was $318.7 million, with a substantial portion of this spent on prescription medications ($273.6 million, or 86%).

'The indirect cost of managing rheumatoid arthritis is currently unknown but the impact of rheumatoid arthritis on those with the condition is significant,' Ms York said.

'Rheumatoid arthritis may also lead to reduced workforce participation, increased costs of managing the condition, and an increased impact on carers,' Ms York said.

The AIHW is a major national agency set up by the Australian Government to provide reliable, regular and relevant information and statistics on Australia's health and welfare.

Canberra, 29 May 2013

Further information: Louise York, AIHW, tel. (02) 6244 1271, mob. 0418 271 395

Full publication: A snapshot of rheumatoid arthritis