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Bowel disease becoming new 'national illness'

Some 2,000 new cases of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are diagnosed in Finland every year, but nobody knows why.

Nuori mies.
Inflammatory bowel disease is becoming more common in Finland. Image: Yle

Finland has seen an explosion in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) cases including Crohn's disease since the chronic condition first became prevalent in the 1990s. The Nordics have seen the most new cases worldwide, but the underlying reason for this remains a medical mystery.

IBD usually sets in between the ages of 15 and 35, with symptoms including prolonged diarrhea, bloody stools and abdominal pain. Crohn’s sufferers deal with cramps and may have to pass stools as many as six times per day.

Not in genes

“It can’t be genetic because our genes don’t change this quickly. It’s also not just down to what we eat, and no individual food item has been singled out as the culprit,” says Eija Hirsi, a gastroenterologist at the central hospital in South Karelia.

Cigarette smoking has, however, been associated with both IBD and Crohn’s disease, studies show.

Researchers are looking into whether an environmental factor may trigger an inflammatory response in some people.

"Our living environment has undergone a seismic shift in recent decades. We walk on asphalt, spend a lot of time indoors and we’re stressed at work all the while antibiotics alter our natural gut flora," Hirsi explains.

National illness

Medical expense reimbursements by Finland's social security institution (Kela) show that last year some 47,800 people were living with IBD, up from 30,000 in 2007. The Kainuu region is home to the highest number of IBD cases per capita in the country. The disease has afflicted more than a percent of the population in this northern region, giving IBD national illness status.

Modern medicine has no cure for IBD and sufferers use a number of medications to manage their symptoms. In severe cases, sections of a patient's intestine are removed to ease symptoms, though surgery itself is not a cure.

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