Every 30 seconds a person in Europe fractures a bone because of osteoporosis, but medicines for patients diagnosed with brittle bones are still not available for free locally.

A total of 321 hip fractures occurred due to osteoporosis in Malta in 2006, costing the country more than €3 million in direct hospital costs.

But the bad news does not stop there: international data shows that 20 per cent of people who fracture their hip die within six months because of complications.

"Only 30 per cent are capable of leading an independent life after a year," said Ray Galea, a consultant gynaecologist who is president of the Malta Osteoporosis Society.

This, he told The Times yesterday, was contributing to an increase in the institutionalisation of elderly people, especially postmenopausal women who run a higher risk of osteoporosis. The condition leads to brittle and easily broken bones because of lack of minerals.

Although osteoporosis can be diagnosed through a bone density test, medicines are still not available on the national health service and come with a monthly price tag of between €42 and €58.

Asked whether there were any plans to start offering these medicines free of charge, a spokesman for the Health Parliamentary Secretariat said this would be taken into consideration when the reform of the free medicines system took place.

Dr Galea explained that bone density is built when a person is young, reaching its peak around the age of 35 before starting to decline, with around one per cent of bone density lost every year. When women hit 50, the lack of oestrogen leads to an increase in bone density loss.

"It is important that teenagers exercise and eat a healthy diet rich in vitamin D to increase their bone density," Dr Galea said, adding that alcohol and tobacco are detrimental for bones.

Apart from the risk of broken bones, osteoporosis could also lead to hunching because of compression fractures in the spine, which Dr Galea said are normally painless and go undiagnosed until patients complain that they are getting shorter. Dr Galea said the best way to diagnose osteoporosis was to carry out a bone density test of the hip and the spine.

He said that following technical problems in one of the two bone density machines which had to be changed, the hospital has extended the testing hours and managed to get rid of the waiting list backlog. In fact, patients who had appointments for January were now being called for an appointment.

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