Merthyr Tydfil named as the unhealthiest town in Britain

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MERTHYR TYDFIL may have once been a vital cog that helped to turn the wheels of the industrial revolution. But it is now the sickest place in Wales, if not Britain, with nearly half of its population suffering from a chronic illness, according to researchers - and the town's legacy of heavy industry may be partly to blame.

A study carried out for the National Assembly for Wales revealed that one in five residents of the South Wales valley town suffers from some sort of mental illness; a quarter of the population has heart disease; one-third has to put up with the pain of arthritis and joint problems; one in five has hearing problems that cause difficulty in conducting a basic conversation; and the population also has fewer teeth of their own than people in most other areas.

The remarkable ill health of the residents of Merthyr Tydfil, which was once the powerhouse of the industrial revolution, with scores of iron foundries and coal mines, contrasts starkly with the higher standard of living of the population of some places, such as Monmouthshire and Cardiff, according to the study.

Viv Protheroe is one of the town's long-term illness victims: he suffers with chronic arthritis, depression, spondylitis, tinnitus and giddiness, and so poor was his health that he took early retirement four years ago at the age of 55.

Mr Protheroe, whose father suffered with pneumoconiosis after working as a miner, believes that the town's history of heavy industry is partly to blame for its residents' poor health. "I think there are a number of factors," he said. "There is a general one associated with heavy industry that has left its scars all around us. And there is poverty and deprivation - Merthyr has had its fair share of that since the industrial revolution. I have a long list of problems, but my story can be repeated a thousand-fold in Merthyr."

The valley town, where shops now provide more jobs than heavy industry, and where, perhaps not surprisingly, the NHS is the biggest employer, is at or near the bottom in a series of indicators used by researchers who sent questionnaires to more than 50,000 people in Wales.

When quizzed about long-term illness, 43 per cent of people in Merthyr said they had had a health problem that limited their daily activities, compared with 29 per cent in Cardiff. Merthyr also had the worst rates for arthritis (33 per cent), mental illness (22 per cent), and respiratory illness (30 per cent). Twenty-four per cent were also being treated for heart disease, and 35 per cent for back pain. Hearing is a problem in the town with 19 per cent of the population, the highest level in the survey, reporting that they found it either difficult or impossible to hear a voice in a conversation.

Merthyr's reputation as the sickest place in Britain comes after another report, earlier this year, found that men in the town were three times more likely to have heart disease and four times more likely to have bronchitis than males in Guildford, Surrey. Merthyr Tydfil was at, or near, the bottom in most of the conditions the researchers looked at.

Dr Mary Walker, a senior lecturer in epidemiology andco-author of the earlier study, said at the time: "It is a very consistent picture of deprivation in Merthyr Tydfil. Although employment patterns have changed over the years, there is a lot of unemployment and a lot of people are carrying morbidity from mining and industry.''