Hundreds of millions of people all over the world travel to, work in or live in mountainous regions. The stress caused by high altitudes causes many health problems as their body seems to be incapable of adapting to such conditions. Studies presented at the congress by mountain medicine experts indicate that around 15% of the population living in the South American Andes suffer from chronic altitude sickness with severe effects on their everyday lives. The Sherpas in Nepal as well as the population of Tibet, on the other hand, are largely resistant to altitude sickness. Genetically they were able to adapt gradually to such conditions over hundreds of generations, and this seems to determine whether people are sensitive to high altitudes or not. “The Tibetans have populated ‘The Roof of the World’ for many centuries. They have adapted superbly to such altitudes in terms of their genetic development. The inhabitants of the Andes, on the other hand, have not been able to adapt fully to their present habitat since they have not been settled there long enough.” This is the conclusion drawn by Hermann Brugger and Giacomo Strapazzon from the Bozen/Bolzano EURAC Institute for Alpine Emergency Medicine, summarising the research findings presented at the congress.
What has not been fully understood by scientists is which factors are primarily responsible for acute altitude sickness. This serious illness, which can lead to a brain or lung oedema, is the most frequent cause of death amongst mountaineers. On the occasion of the World Congress, the scientists presented new studies, demonstrating for the first time how, with the aid of ultrasound, the risk of altitude sickness can be diagnosed early. The studies showed a direct link between an enlarged optic nerve, measured with ultrasonography techniques, and altitude sickness. The results presented at the congress are based on the so-called “Ortler Study” carried out in 2011 by EURAC medical experts Brugger and Strapazzon in collaboration with the glacier scientists located on the Ortler Mountain.
“Compared to other specializations, high altitude and mountain medicine is a fairly recent discipline. At the same time, this particular discipline has to cope with several complicating factors relating to diagnosis and therapy: weather conditions, difficult terrain, psychological problems brought about by the extreme conditions that prevail at high altitudes. The World Congress is the platform where high altitude physicians, emergency doctors, mountain rescuers and mountaineers can interact, giving them the opportunity to learn from one another and to make progress. We expect to have many more decisive insights over the course of the next few days of the congress,” affirms Buddha Basnyat, President of the International Society for Mountain Medicine (ISMM), which co-hosts the congress.
Nepal, symbolic for high altitude and at the same time for the problems associated with high altitude, is one of the main themes of this congress. The steady increase in mountaineering tourism from the rich western world collides with the poverty of the local population. “The Mount Everest avalanche disaster on 18 April this year showed how important it is that the Nepalese Sherpas and mountain guides are also fully trained in rescue procedures. Many of them have not even mastered the most important techniques of first aid. We are a group of 20 Nepalese doctors and Sherpas and as we were fortunate enough to complete a medical and rescue-related training course in South Tyrol, we are now in a position to pass on this knowledge to others. We intend to set up a locally organised mountain rescue system in Nepal,” explains Pranawa Koirala, Nepalese mountain rescuer and doctor, who, two years ago, trained in mountain rescue in South Tyrol.
The X. World Congress on High Altitude Medicine and Physiology & Mountain Emergency Medicine will discuss latest global research findings and new developments in mountain rescue techniques; topics related to mountain emergency medicine will feature on the programme for the first time in the history of the congress.