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Report puts cost estimate on eating disorders -

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ELEANOR HALL: The body image group, the Butterfly Foundation, has just conducted Australia's first report into the cost of eating disorders.

The foundation's report calculates that diseases like bulimia and anorexia cost $70 billion a year, but the cost in human lives is even more staggering - the study predicts eating disorders will kill more than 1,800 Australians this year.

Tom Nightingale has our report.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: Judy Goldsmith remembers her daughter, Alana, being a bright and talented girl.

JUDY GOLDSMITH: You know, snowboarding, running, netball, all the usual activities and there was nothing wrong as far as I could see. She got 95 UAI and topped Japanese, and Japanese extension, and economics, she was just so, so talented.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: Alana was anorexic and killed herself after being admitted to a private hospital in Sydney last year.

JUDY GOLDSMITH: On the fifth day there, she slipped out the door and took her life. That was in July 2011.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: How old was she when she died?

JUDY GOLDSMITH: She was almost 24. So when we talk about the hidden illness, you know, she would volunteer to the doctors, she contracted it when she was 15, but really it was acute in those last few years. But I was blind to it for all those years. I thought, you know, I believed her explanation for initial weight loss, but once it gets in your brain it's in there.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: The theme of today's report is that the effects of eating disorders are largely underestimated. For example, it says 10 suicide deaths were attributed to eating disorders in 2010 but the report calculates more than 1,800 people will die from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia this year.

And it estimates 914,000 people in Australia have an eating disorder this year.

The Butterfly Foundation's chief executive is Christine Morgan:

CHRISTINE MORGAN: The total socioeconomic impact cost that's been assessed by Deloitte is $69.7 billion.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: If it is a hidden illness, does that mean that people can keep up a normal, healthy functioning life?

CHRISTINE MORGAN: Very much so, to all appearances. It's not a normal, healthy functioning life when you scratch beneath the surface, but certainly it's a fallacy to think that you can pick an eating disorder from physical appearance, even for anorexia nervosa. There can be those who are within the grip of anorexia nervosa and you cannot tell it by looking at their size or shape.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: Is there a chance that that 900,000 figure is overstated?

CHRISTINE MORGAN: I don't believe so at all. I think when you look at - in fact what Deloitte Access Economics have said is that they believe the estimates are conservative but we would also urgently seek a national epidemiological study so that we can truly underpin what needs to be done at a systemic policy level with the results from such a study.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: Professor Tracey Wade is from Flinders University and wasn't involved in the report, but she's also studied the prevalence of eating disorders and she says the real figures are likely to be higher.

TRACEY WADE: They're talking about a prevalence of 4 per cent of the population, and the work that we've done would suggest that 8 per cent of Australian women have a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: She's also a member of a Federal Government advisory committee, working on addressing eating disorders.

TRACEY WADE: And that means an eating disorder that's accompanied by high levels of depression and an impact on quality of life, which of course then speaks to the financial cost that it has.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: How confident can we be in the current prevalence estimates, given that this report says that more work's needed to define exactly that?

TRACEY WADE: I think we have a lot of difficulty being confident in our prevalence, and it is, as I said, partly because this is a disorder that people sometimes don't necessarily label as a problem or they're ashamed to actually admit to it.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: The report recommends far more priority be placed on eating disorders. It says more treatment options are needed, and the Bureau of Statistics should ask people about it in the Australian health survey conducted every five years.

Judy Goldsmith thinks people need to be more honest about eating disorders in their lives.

JUDY GOLDSMITH: It took years for me to understand it was a mental illness. So we have to educate and this report showing enormity of it - it's an epidemic. People I tell Alana's story to, I don't tell it to everyone, but for some reason I will tell it to some people and not others, and everywhere I turn, someone's sister, someone's aunt had it.

It's everywhere. We need to really get something happening. There's not enough beds, there's not enough medical experts to cope with the demand.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: Information and help is available from the Butterfly Foundation's support line on 1800 334 673, or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

ELEANOR HALL: Tom Nightingale with that report.