Time for CTE from footy to be recognised as an ‘industrial disease’: expert

Leading concussion expert Professor Alan Pearce says it’s time to seriously consider classifying dementia from repeated heavy hits to the brain on an AFL field as an “industrial disease”.

Footy: the school of head knocks. Credit:Dyson

Dementia in rugby players, soccer players, and boxers in England could be recognised as an industrial disease after the government’s scientific advisors there agreed to widen their investigation of a range of contact sports. The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) heard evidence that professional players were more than three times likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease.

If CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is officially recognised as an “industrial disease” by the AFL, it would mean there would a greater chance of an industry care fund being established for injured players and their families.

“I think it is time, definitely, especially now that we have confirmation through ‘Polly’ Farmer, Danny Frawley, and Shane Tuck of CTE,” Pearce, a neuroscientist, who is also the Victorian manager of the Australian Sports Brain Bank, said.

“I think it’s a legitimate question, I think it’s a timely question.

“It would mean they can’t attribute it (CTE) to other reasons. It’s not like they had head injuries from something outside of their professional work. We would need to look at it through the lens of a risk of the job. Every job has some sort of risk, especially physical jobs.

“I know in the UK they have been using it as an open finding until they can get a bit more definitive for CTE.”

Frawley, the St Kilda great, Farmer, the Geelong great, and former Richmond midfielder Tuck were posthumously diagnosed with CTE – a degenerative brain disease linked to head knocks.

The investigation into Tuck’s death is before the Coroners Court, which will examine the correlation between CTE and the head trauma he suffered during his sporting career. All parties, including the AFL and AFL Players Association, are currently preparing submissions into the proposed scope of the investigation.

Concussion campaigner and AFL player agent Peter Jess is pushing for dementia linked to professional sporting careers to be recognised as an industrial disease, declaring it has already been proved scientifically and medically here and in overseas cases.

Jess said he was working with legal advisors in the United Kingdom and the USA on developments involving “collision-based sports” and says it’s time for CTE linked to the AFL to fall in the industrial disease category.

“Sports-related dementia is the full suite of the problems that emerge from CTE and dementia is the end game, where you are restricted in your quality of life,” he said.

“Sooner or later it is going to require legislative action, which has already in place in the US and also mooted in the UK.

The Western Bulldogs are taking a cautious approach with the return of Tim English (right) from concussion.Credit:Getty Images

“Shaun Smith was really the benchmark in Australia where two independent medical panels confirmed that his brain injury was the result of playing in the AFL. That meant causation was no longer an issue, that it means scientifically and medically we can prove it beyond reasonable doubt using the Bradford Hill criteria.”

The Bradford Hill criteria is a group of nine principles that can establish epidemiological evidence of a link between a “presumed cause and an observed effect”.

The AFL did not wish to comment. However, it has tightened its concussion protocols this season, with players subbed off required to have a minimum 12-day mandatory break. The league continues to consult experts on all head-related injuries.

Pearce has advocated for players to spend at least 14 days sidelined after being concussed, even though his research shows 30 days is the ideal time to recover, because he was concerned players would not honestly report their symptoms.

Jess, who maintains at least 30 days is also the ideal time, said the Western Bulldogs should be acknowledged for the manner in which they have treated Tim English. The beanpole ruckman has sat out the past three weeks because of a head knock while playing Greater Western Sydney.

“Hopefully, that becomes the standard within the industry,” Jess said.

“I cannot be other than impressed that the medical advisors to the club are ensuring the safety of the player to not return before his brain has fully healed.”

The AFL recently appointed two executives, Associate Professor Catherine Willmott and Rachel Elliott, to run its concussion strategy.

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