Rugby and dementia: ACC bracing for claims

By Dylan Cleaver

A Herald investigation has found that five men from a single Ranfurly Shield-winning rugby team have been diagnosed with dementia. Their families attribute their conditions to concussions suffered during their playing days.

RUGBY AND DEMENTIA SERIES - OVERVIEW

A sharp rise in ACC claims involving rugby concussions has the organisation bracing for its first dementia case.

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A spokeswoman for the compensation agency said that although they had not yet received any claims for chronic conditions due to rugby, "it's quite likely that with the growing suite of international medical literature and greater understanding of causation, that we will in the future".

In 2010, the ACC processed 1480 claims for concussion or brain injury for rugby. The following year that increased to 1508 and has increased every year to the point where last year 2413 claims were received.

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Likewise, active costs in 2010 stood at $1.1 million to $1.9m last year, an increase of 80.1 per cent.

"We are seeing more reported cases of concussion because an increasing number of players are seeking treatment," Stephanie Melville, the ACC spokeswoman, said. "This is important not only for wellbeing but also because any chronic consequence of a much earlier would need to be correlated with the initial acute event in order for ACC to consider cover."

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It is this last point that would make historic claims difficult. As we have previously reported in this series, attitudes to concussion were much more laissez-faire until recent times, and were in some cases even seen as a badge of honour.

Ian Uttley All Black number 634 is capped by NZRU President John Sturgeon. Photo / Getty Images
Ian Uttley All Black number 634 is capped by NZRU President John Sturgeon. Photo / Getty Images

David Olliver, a good friend and flatmate of Neil Wolfe, who is now living with Alzheimer's Disease, and Ian Uttley, who died while in the ravages of Alzheimer's last year, said both players were frequently "hurt" and estimated that Uttley had played with concussion for five years, from club level through to the All Blacks.

"Because awareness of the concussion issue is recent, any person who may now have a chronic condition as a result of a historical head knock playing sport would likely not recognise the possible correlation and did not seek treatment at the time," Melville said.

The have been precedents in the UK and Ireland recently, where awards have been granted in historical cases.

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A coroner ruled that former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle, who passed away at 59 after suffering dementia, died from "industrial disease" caused by heading footballs.

In 2012, the Herald documented the tragic death of 14-year-old Benjamin Robinson, who died in 2011 after losing consciousness during a schoolboy game in Northern Ireland.

A coronial inquest attributed his death to Second Impact Syndrome - the first holding of its kind in the UK - which is when the brain swells rapidly after a person suffers a second concussion before symptoms from an earlier hit to the head have subsided.

In 2014, the High Court in Dublin approved a €2.75 million damages settlement to another schoolboy who suffered serious head injuries playing school rugby.

The Astle case in particular has strong parallels to what many ex-rugby players are suffering now - a long, slow and confused death quite possibly, maybe even probably, caused by injuries received during their careers.

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NFL acknowledge connection

In a stunning development, the NFL's top health and safety officer acknowledged yesterday there is a link between football-related head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE - the first time a senior league official has conceded football's connection to the devastating brain disease.

According to multiple reports, the admission came during a roundtable discussion on concussions convened by the US House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce. Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety, was asked by a House representative if the link between football and neurodegenerative diseases like CTE and other forms of dementia had been established.

"The answer to that question is certainly yes," Miller said.

The concession comes as the movie Concussion opens at screens across the country.

Starring Will Smith as Dr Bennet Omalu, it tells a watered-down version of the lengths the NFL went to discredit his discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalothapy while performing an autopsy on Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster.

There are now close to 40 known cases of CTE in deceased NFL players, with "deceased" being the operative word - there is no test that can identify CTE in the living.

A scientific paper published in 2009 revealed that former NFL players were 19 times more likely to suffer from early-onset Alzheimer's than the general public.

- NZ Herald

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