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Mary Davis: How health checks on our special athletes are saving lives

"You can't compete if your feet hurt, if your teeth hurt or if your ears ache."

This message from a Special Olympics athlete sums up the motivation behind the Special Olympics Healthy Athlete Programme.

People with intellectual disabilities have a 40pc higher risk than the rest of the population for several preventable health conditions, which is why the Healthy Athlete Programme is so effective and necessary.

It offers athletes free health screenings. Without the volunteer health care professionals who carry out these screenings, the programme would not exist so today I want to sincerely thank them.

More than one million athletes in 100 countries have been screened as part of this programme over a 14-year period since its launch with lives and limbs, eyesight and hearing being saved in many cases.

Today is World Health Day and an opportunity for us in Special Olympics to emphasis the urgency for a much greater understanding and an informed debate on the medical needs and challenges faced by people with intellectual disabilities and their families, not just here in Ireland but globally.

The reality is that people with intellectual disabilities have more specialised health care needs and greater difficulty accessing health care services and health care professionals compared to the wider general public. A major study in the US found that 80pc of medical school students receive no clinical training in treating people with intellectual disabilities.

The Special Olympics National Games were held in Limerick last June.

At these Games, 763 athletes were screened in four disciplines: optometry, dentistry, podiatry and health promotion.

The results found 46pc of athletes required prescription glasses (provided free of charge); almost 18pc had eye disease; one quarter had untreated tooth decay; over 50pc had gum disease; over three quarters of athletes had gait abnormalities and 71pc of athletes were found to have a body mass index classifying them in the overweight/ obese category.

The most moving aspect is that so many did not know they had health problems.

Research conducted by Special Olympics has found that doctors have difficulty in diagnosing and prescribing treatment for people with intellectual disabilities for many reasons but poor bodily awareness and depressed pain responses are revealed as prominent factors.

The impact on many volunteer doctors and nurses after getting involved in the Special Olympics Healthy Athlete Programme is significant. They drastically alter the way they work, teach and conduct research in order to be more inclusive of taking on patients with intellectual disabilities. However this message needs to be more broadly voiced.

The power of Special Olympics is change -- the power to change lives for the better -- and health is a cornerstone of Special Olympics programming and research.

Special Olympics has become the largest public health organisation for people with intellectual disabilities in the world and maintains the largest database of health information in existence.

There are many obstacles to accessing primary care and barriers faced by health care professionals in delivering adequate primary care services.

It is important as equal citizens of Ireland that this population receive the services they need and deserve in order to lead healthy and happy lives.

Many issues must be addressed, in particular communication barriers and the knowledge and training health care professionals need in order to provide care to those with intellectual disabilities in our country.

Together we all have a duty to create a legacy of care.

Mary Davis is chairperson of Special Olympics Ireland and managing director of Special Olympics Europe/Eurasia