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World Osteoporosis Day: Prevention can save lives

(Vienna 19th October 2011) – "Far too many people are unaware of the fact that they have osteoporosis”, says Peter Pietschmann, one of the experts in osteoporosis at the MedUni Vienna, in the context of World Osteoporosis Day being held on the 20th of October. According to the Austrian Society for Bone and Mineral Metabolism Research, there are around 740,000 people suffering with osteoporosis in Austria, 600,000 of them being women. However, only around 120,000 of them are receiving adequate treatment because too few are aware of the need for prevention.

“Osteoporosis is markedly under-diagnosed”, says Peter Pietschmann, expert in osteoporosis at the Institute of Pathophysiology and Allergy Research at the MedUni Vienna within the Vienna General Hospital. “There are some very effective medicines available for treating osteoporosis and preventing fractures, however. The preventative bone density measurement also merely involves a painless X-ray examination and this is easily accessible to accredited physicians", says the scientist. The bone density measurement determines whether the density of the bone is too low, giving rise to possible osteoporosis. This examination is recommended by the social insurance fund for women over the age of 65 and for men aged 70 and over, and is paid for by the health insurance fund.

On a par with cardiovascular diseases
In view of the increased risk of fractures, osteoporosis represents a health problem that is on a par with cardiovascular diseases or various types of cancer in terms of frequency. Fractures caused by osteoporosis often lead to loss of mobility and the need for constant care, as well as pain and a significantly impaired quality of life. There are around 16,000 femoral neck fractures a year in Austria. Set against the total number of people living in the country, this is one of the worst rates in the whole of the EU. Death within the first year of this injury is two to five times higher than in women without such a fracture. What’s more, says Pietschmann, there is a general lack of awareness regarding the need to not only seek surgical treatment for the fracture but also to think of secondary prevention against osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is caused by an imbalance of bone build-up and breakdown. This causes changes in the bone mass and the microarchitecture of the bone tissue. As a result, the bone loses stability and is more likely to fracture.
“More than 50 per cent of this multi-factorial condition is down to genetics”, says Pietschmann. The other risk factors for developing osteoporosis include hormonal changes, environmental influences, calcium and vitamin D deficiencies and smoking.

Focus on osteoimmunology
Pietschmann and his team of researchers at the Institute of Pathophysiology and Allergy Research are currently focusing on osteoimmunology, i.e. with the questions of "how do bones and the immune system communicate?", and "how can bone structures be attacked?”. The goal is to come up with new approaches to treatment that directly affect the bone metabolism and halt bone destruction. Says Pietschmann: “There is already a highly promising treatment for osteoporosis available which involves a monoclonal antibody against RANKL.” RANKL (Receptor Activity of Nuclear factor Kappa B Ligand) is a substance that is formed by a sub-group of the white blood cells known as T cells. This messenger substance of the immune system promotes the formation of bone-destroying cells (osteoclasts).