The 2009 Peter Snow Award for rural health research and service – given annually to honour the memory of Dr Peter Snow, the New Zealand doctor who gained international attention for his research into ‘Tapanui Flu’, otherwise known as ME – has been given to Dr Garry Nixon.
The presentation was made by health minister Tony Ryall at the New Zealand Rural General Practice Network’s annual conference in Wellington yesterday (March 27).
Dr Nixon is a medical officer at Dunstan Hospital in Clyde, South Island, and lecturer at the University of Otago Dunedin School of Medicine, whose research includes the rural management of heart disease, improving access to secondary health care and training for rural hospital specialist doctors.
‘Tapanui Flu’ entered the lexicon in 1984 when the New Zealand Medical Journal described an unusual outbreak of disease in West Otago, a mountainous sheep-farming region on South Island. The cases were centered on Tapanui, a rural inland town of 5,000 people.
Tapanui’s only doctor, Peter Snow, first suspected there might be an outbreak of illness in 1982 "when a number of patients presented with extreme fatigue and a virtual inability to continue with their employment", All but three were under the age of 45. Most were young people and schoolchildren who did not regularly see a doctor. Snow observed that most had been ill for four to six weeks when they came to his clinic.
Snow and fellow collaborator, microbiologist Michael Holmes, investigated and ruled out the idea that the villagers were suffering from a mass hysteria. None of the classic indicators could be found. Instead, they concluded the illness was "a definite entity" with symptoms "consistent with a viral etiology".
Peter Snow became president of the Royal New Zealand College of GPs in 1998-99, receiving their highest honour –a Distinguished Fellowship – in 2001. He died in February 2006, at the age of 71.