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Athlete Health overview

For the first time in New Zealand, health authorities have comprehensive, accurate data on the health of New Zealanders with an intellectual disability.

Special Olympics New Zealand has launched the pioneering report Athlete Health Overview, which provides information on the visual, audiological, dental, and podiatric health and mobility of more than 2000 individuals with an intellectual disability.
The report focuses on data gathered from Healthy Athletes® Screening at Special Olympics New Zealand’s National Summer Games in 2005 and 2009. As part of the screening programme qualified medical staff from the four different health disciplines volunteer their time to screen athletes, and identify any issues. As required, athletes are referred on for additional screening, or given solutions on the spot (e.g. prescription glasses, ear wax removed).
To compile the Athlete Health Overview researchers from the Donald Beasley Institute, which specialises in disability research and education, analysed the data from the ‘Opening Eyes’, ‘Healthy Hearing’, ‘Special Smiles’, and ‘Fit Feet’ screens, and provided comparisons to Healthy Athletes® Screening results from the Special Olympics World Winter Games held in Ireland in 2003.
“International research has shown that people with an intellectual disability have poorer health than the general population. While we knew this anecdotally from our work, this is the first time New Zealand has had accurate information about the state of health of our population with intellectual disabilities. The results paint a grim picture,” says Kathy Gibson, Chief Executive Officer of Special Olympics New Zealand.
Nine out of 10 athletes failed one of the Opening Eyes screening tests. One in five athletes presented with an internal eye problem at the 2009 Summer Games (mostly cataracts, which reduce vision). In comparison just 4% of athletes at the World Summer Games presented with the same issue. The condition was prominent in athletes from Northland, Bay of Plenty, and Hawke’s Bay.
Serious, undetected, and untreated ear conditions were also discovered. Across both Games an average 72% of athletes failed otoacoustic emissions screening (69% in 2005, 75.3% in 2009) indicating damage to the inner ear.
Two in three athletes had poor oral health while four in five athletes over the age of 50 had missing teeth.
Eight out of 10 athletes had a biomechanical abnormality in their feet and legs including over-pronation (an exaggerated inward roll of the foot and ankle), supination (outward roll), or abnormal gait. One out of five athletes was wearing a shoe that was more than two sizes too big or too small for their feet. 
“I do not believe that the health sector can ignore these findings. There is certainly opportunity for Special Olympics to work with other community and health organisations to establish a nationwide screening programme that is open to all New Zealanders with an intellectual disability. Our Healthy Athletes® Screening is limited to the 1000 or so athletes who compete at the National Summer Games, whereas we have more than 6000 athletes training with us around the country. Moreover, there are 39,000 further New Zealanders with intellectual disabilities who are not yet part of Special Olympics New Zealand. 
“The Athlete Health Overview report has proven that the Healthy Athletes® Screening programme has made a significant difference to the health and wellbeing of people with intellectual disabilities by identifying issues and providing real-time solutions. We’re looking forward to working with like-minded organisations to utilise the findings in this report and pilot new innovations that connect and monitor health improvements for people with intellectual disabilities. All New Zealanders should have access to regular health screening and follow on care,” says Mrs Gibson. 
Special Olympics New Zealand’s Athlete Health Overview can be downloaded. Hard copies are available on request.
The next Healthy Athletes® Screening programme will take place at the Special Olympics New Zealand National Summer Games in Wellington in 2017.
For more information please contact:

Kathy Gibson

Chief Executive Officer


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