1 in 7 Australians affected by arthritis

Data released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) shows that about 3.3 million Australians-or 1 in every 7 people-reported having some form of arthritis in 2011-12.

Today's release is part of the Institute's web-based Musculoskeletal conditions compendium.

'Our release shows that 1.8 million Australians had osteoarthritis-a degenerative condition affecting joints such as hips, knees and ankles,' said AIHW spokesperson Tim Beard.

Almost half a million (over 445,000) had rheumatoid arthritis-a condition marked by inflammation of the joints causing inflammation, swelling and stiffness.

'Women continued to be most affected by all forms of arthritis, accounting for over 60%-or 2 million-of self-reported cases.'

The data also revealed that hospitalisation rates are increasing for some forms of arthritis.

'Hospitalisation rates for both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis have increased markedly despite little change in their prevalence over last 10 years,' Mr Beard said.

Between 2003-04 and 2012-13, there was a 55% increase in hospitalisation rates for rheumatoid arthritis and 30% for osteoarthritis, particularly knee replacements for osteoarthritis which have risen 46% over this period.

The rise in hospitalisation rates for rheumatoid arthritis appears to be due to increased use of particular drug therapies or 'pharmacotherapies' such as corticosteroids, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biologic DMARDS (bDMARDS). The number of these procedures tripled since the introduction of bDMARDs in 2003-04.

'These drugs have to be administered and monitored by specialist rheumatologists, to minimise side effects and to ensure their effectiveness,' Mr Beard said.

'Because of this, they often require a day or overnight stay in hospital.'

Since their introduction in 2003-04, the number of bDMARD units dispensed in Australia has risen from around 6,600 units to 156,000 units during 2013-14.  Concurrently, benefits paid by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for bDMARDS rose from $13.0 million to $281 million annually. During this time, there has also been a substantial reduction in the number of knee replacements for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Available data sources are not able to definitively link these changes directly to improved drug treatments.

Clinical studies have shown that aggressive treatment with DMARDs within 12 weeks of the onset of symptoms can lead to reduced joint destruction and a higher chance of achieving remission from what can be a very debilitating disease, both physically and psychologically.

The AIHW's Musculoskeletal conditions compendium contains a range of information and statistics on rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, juvenile arthritis, osteoporosis and back problems. Information covers what each disease is, who gets it, how it is treated, quality of life, and expenditure (see www.aihw.gov.au/arthritis-and-musculoskeletal-conditions).

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, 15 May 2015

Further information: Mr Tim Beard, AIHW, 02 6244 1270; 0418 271 395