I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue. It has been well publicised in recent years that the incidence of chronic illnesses such as Crohn's disease has significantly increased, yet the long-term illness scheme has not been updated since 1970. It is time for it to reflect this increase and I ask the Minister to relay to his colleague the need to provide some assistance for people suffering this blight on their health. It is a very unpleasant condition.
Crohn's is a serious, chronic inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal tract that affects approximately 5,000 people in Ireland. There is no medical or surgical cure for it and there are few treatment options for patients suffering with this chronic condition. Crohn's disease affects people of all ages, but it is primarily diagnosed in adolescents and young adults, with onset typically between the ages of 15 and 40 years. It can have a devastating impact on the day-to-day lives of people and commonly occurs during a time of life when people are most active such as when they are in school, going to college or having a family. It can limit personal choices, resulting in many dropping out of third level education, working part-time rather than full-time, or working closer to home to reduce travel time. Many opt for low stress lifestyles and less pressurised careers. The condition poses challenges for those who wish to travel and some are also fearful of starting a relationship or family. It varies in an acute or chronic form and can be characterised by flare-ups and periods of remission. The severity of symptoms, the times without illness and the length of flare-up vary from person to person and there is no identified cause for its occurrence and little public understanding of the pain and chronic suffering with which patients cope every day.
People with long-term illnesses have a heavy load to bear in terms of the cost of treatment, the effect on their lives and their ability to and availability for work. The costs incurred in having an inflammatory bowel disease can have a huge effect on family finances. With Crohn's disease, the issue is not just medication, there is also the matter of consultant fees, the cost of GP blood tests and other procedures that mount up. Sufferers face a lifetime of medication, GP sessions, blood tests, endoscopy and regular consultant visits. As such, a Crohn’s disease patient may spend thousands of euro per year in managing the condition, with little potential for State support via the provision of tax relief at the standard rate.
Symptoms which patients can experience include abdominal pain and cramps, diarrhoea and blood loss, exhaustion, loss of appetite, nausea, fever and weight loss. It is a horrible illness. Crohn's disease patients are often treated with immunosuppressant drugs, resulting in infections being contracted on a regular basis. As a result, expensive visits to the GP are a requirement. Furthermore, one of the common side effects of Crohn's disease is joint pain, which means a trip to the physiotherapist is also a necessity. There is also the cost of health insurance and the drugs which are not available on prescription but which are also a necessity for treatment. These include paracetamol, medication for heartburn, anti-inflammatory gels, vitamins, etc.
Many patients suffering from Crohn's disease are prescribed steroids in times of flare-up. These drugs are extremely harmful to bone density and often lead to the onset of another long-term illness, osteoporosis, which is not covered by the scheme either. Does the Minister agree that by including Crohn's disease in the long-term illness scheme, it would help keep patients well and manage their conditions? I am sure the Minister is well aware of the affliction I have described and people suffering from the condition. I would appreciate it if we could, in straitened economic times, spare a thought for those who must endure this severe illness on a daily basis and deal with the associated cost.