Parkinson's disease now afflicts close to 1 million Americans, with 60,000 new cases diagnosed each year. And while the symptoms, including tremor and rigidity, are often improved with pharmaceutical and at times surgical interventions, no treatment exists for the underlying disease.
Parkinson's is described as a progressive idiopathic neurodegenerative disorder, a brain disease that will worsen with time for which no cause has as yet been identified.
Despite the overwhelming emotional toll inflicted by this disease not only on patients but family members as well, not to mention the nearly $25 billion that is expended in the U.S. annually in medical costs directly attributed to this condition, nowhere in the medical discourse is there any mention of disease prevention as it relates to Parkinson's disease. Basically, the status quo seems to be that patients and families are told that we just don't know what causes Parkinson's, but perhaps someday there will be a cure.
But beyond the well-intentioned pursuit of a cure for Parkinson's, we are just beginning to see an interest in determining the actual cause of the disease. And it is this type of research that may ultimately open the door to its prevention.
In a recent study published in the well-respected journal Neurology, Italian researchers described an important relationship between a particular toxin, mancozeb, and Parkinson's disease. Mancozeb is a highly toxic chemical that is used in research, as it induces the brain changes of Parkinson's disease in experimental animals. Through their exhaustive review of 104 studies, the authors were able to show that human exposure to this highly toxic chemical was associated with a more than two-fold increased risk for developing Parkinson's disease. This revelation is important because understanding the specific toxic effects of mancozeb on the brain could well provide valuable data that could serve to enhance our understanding of Parkinson's causation.
One would assume that such a powerful toxin would be carefully controlled -- perhaps only available to researchers in a secure laboratory setting. But not so. Mancozeb is not only available to anyone and everyone, it is actually sold in garden stores as a commonly used fungicide with recommendations to apply it to the very fruits and vegetables we grow and ultimately consume.
To reiterate, we are encouraged to apply to our vegetable gardens the very same chemical that medical researchers use to create Parkinson's in laboratory animals!
As a practicing neurologist, I can tell you first hand that working with Parkinson's patients offers clinical challenges. But from an emotional perspective, this disease can border on overwhelming.
Medical research is now removing the veil and uncovering important new clues underlying Parkinson's disease. And it appears, that to at least some degree, this insidious process may be of our own making.
Physicians are charged to practice under the dictum of primum non nocere -- above all, do no harm. Clearly, the time has come to apply this admonition well beyond the clinical arena.
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