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   Apr 25

Health atlas allows online search of risk by area

Scientists mapped the incidence of different diseases against environmental factors, such as air pollution

A new online map of England and Wales allows people to enter their postcode and find their community’s risk of developing 14 conditions, such as heart disease and lung cancer.


The map presents population-wide health information for England and Wales.

The researchers at Imperial College London pointed out that it could not be used to see an individual’s risk.

It indicated an area’s health risk, relative to the average for England and Wales, they stressed.

Twenty-five year study

Researchers at Imperial looked at 8,800 wards measuring 100 by 100 metres in England and Wales, each with a population of 6,000 people.

They collected data from the Office for National Statistics and from cancer registries for 1985 to 2009.

Data was then mapped alongside region-by-region variations in environmental factors such as air pollution, sunshine and pesticides.

The data was also adjusted for age, deprivation and to take into account small numbers.

Researchers said this was the first tool of its kind.

Dr Anna Hanfield, from the UK Small Area Health Statistics Unit, led the research.

She said: “Across all of these areas there are some that have higher risks and some that have lower risks.”

Eight communities in Bridgend and Rhondda Cynon Taff, in Wales, and Leeds, Manchester and the Wirral in England had a higher health risk, Dr Hanfield said.

She said within those eight communities none stood out as “doing badly for everything”, and that the statistics had not been geared up to rank the areas.

Since the study adjusted for deprivation, Dr Hanfield said it raised some “surprising” variations which could be explained by the increased incidence of smoking in the past 25 years.

Meanwhile, 33 wards were identified as having a lower risk of disease, including North Norfolk, some parts of London, and the Suffolk coastline.

Environmental factors accounted for roughly 5-10% of a person’s risk of disease, which was significant in terms of a population, Dr Hanfield said.

She said she hoped “really important benefits” could come out of further research using the tool and that it would raise questions about disease patterns.

Lifestyle more important

Prof David Coggon, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Southampton, said the atlas provided a “finer level of spatial resolution” than its predecessors.

But he said there were “shortcomings” in the research, such as the possible of chance variation and the likelihood of distortion by exposure to non-environmental causes of disease, such as smoking and diet, which are not fully explained by deprivation.

Prof Coggon added: “These unavoidable shortcomings do not invalidate the analyses presented, but they are a reason for caution in interpretation.”

He said people should not focus on environmental factors, but instead eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and avoid smoking, excessive alcohol, and “unnecessarily risky” behaviours such as dangerous driving.

Prof Paul Pharoah, professor of cancer epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, said: “This atlas does not enable anyone to judge their individual absolute risk.

“People should definitely not use this atlas to decide where to live.”

He said it would be “wrong to imply” any causal association between any of the environmental exposures and any of the health outcomes described in the atlas.

Prof Pharoah added: “What these data should do is help researchers identify important hypothesis that should be tested using research designs.”

Are you in an area designated by the map as being more at risk to a particular disease or condition? Do you think local conditions have influenced this risk? You can email your experiences to haveyoursay@bbc.co.uk, using the subject line ‘Health map’.

Source: BBC

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