Reporter 419, 27 April 1998

Eating disorders – sufferers throw off ‘stupid’ tag to back life-saving Centre in Leeds

When Ruth Gardner was admitted to the Yorkshire Centre for Eating Disorders last year, she weighed barely three-and-a-half stones. Her breakfast would consist of two bran flakes, while for lunch she would make do with a plain lettuce sandwich. Ruth’s main meal of the day might be a few boiled vegetables. Now all that has changed. After treatment at the Centre, based at Seacroft Hospital in Leeds, her weight has gone up to a more healthy eight stones.

However, many sufferers are not so lucky, as there is a severe shortage of such eating disorder centres around the country. To help the Yorkshire Centre cope with its ever-increasing workload, Ruth has joined forces with four other former patients to help to raise £500,000 towards its running costs.

“I would not be alive without the Centre,” she admits. “There are a lot of people out there with anorexia and without places like this they will die.”

Alongside the clinical treatment of patients such as Ruth, the Centre is working with researchers from the University of Leeds to help to discover the causes of eating disorders. The Centre has just been awarded £250,000 from the Leeds Community and Mental Health Trust to pursue pure research into the possibility of a genetic cause for anorexia and bulimia.

Dr Lorenzo Pieri, head of the Yorkshire Centre for Eating Disorders, explains: “What is known about anorexia and bulimia is far outweighed by what is unknown.”

In a bid to redress this balance, there are now three research posts at the Centre funded by research grants made to the University. Dr Pieri says there is an intimate connection between research and the clinical work of the Centre, and he pays tribute to the efforts of Professor Alex Markham at the University’s Department of Molecular Medicine.

“Professor Markham has been crucial in helping establish our research profile, the thrust of which is into genetics,” he says.

The University is collaborating with researchers at universities in Australia, Germany, Japan and elsewhere in the UK, in an effort to discover more about eating disorders. In the UK there are around 2,000 new cases of anorexia every year, of which about 200 are in Yorkshire. The average duration of the illness is six years.

“There are probably about 60,000 cases of anorexia out there across the country and treating it and other eating disorders is not a two-week process,” says Dr Pieri. “It takes years and it is very expensive.”

Yet there is a dearth of specialist centres to address the problem. A study by the Consumers’ Association and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, published earlier this month, found that help for sufferers was patchy and often non-existent. The nearest centres to Leeds are in Newcastle and Leicester, both around 100 miles away.

That helps explain why the Centre at Seacroft, which has room for 12 inpatients, is treating sufferers from across the north. In the whole of last year the Centre had over 400 outpatient referrals, yet just the first six weeks of this year saw 100 referrals as more people heard about the treatments available.

“We are an oasis in a desert,” says Dr Pieri. “Eating disorders are as common as diabetes yet there are less than 20 centres in the country. If you were taken to hospital with diabetes, and were told you couldn’t be treated, then there would be an outcry. Yet that’s what happens with eating disorders. I have just come back from seeing a patient in Bridlington and now I’ve got to see somebody in Northallerton. To the north of us there is a centre in Newcastle, to the south there is Leicester, but to the west there is nothing, to the east there is nothing, and in Scotland there is Edinburgh. And that’s it.”

That is where research into genetics comes in. “As long as it’s thought that eating disorders are just a matter of girls being stupid, then funding will remain a low priority. That’s why it’s important to ask the question whether eating disorders have a genetic cause.”

Meanwhile, Ruth Gardner and her fellow survivors’ public appeal for funds is generating goodwill if not yet serious money, as Dr Pieri explains. “We’ve had some very moving letters alongside donations such as £25 from the parents of someone who died from an eating disorder, and £5 from a granny. What we really need, of course, is for the Department of Molecular Medicine to get £1 million from somewhere.”

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