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[KH Explains] Rates of ‘disease of kings’ gout doubling in Korea

1 in 4 gout patients in their 20s and 30s

By Shim Woo-hyun

Published : Sept. 2, 2023 - 16:00

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Gout has long been thought of as a “disease of kings” due to its apparent link to a diet rich in meat and alcohol consumption. With rapid economic growth and dietary changes, the number of such patients has almost doubled in South Korea over the past decade. More recently, the incidence has been rising in people in their 20s and 30s.

According to the National Health Insurance Service, more than half a million Koreans (508,397) suffered the disease in 2022, compared to 265,065 patients in 2012.

By gender, males made up 92.8 percent of the cases at 471,439, but the number of female patients is also on a steady rise. While the number of male patients surged by 17.8 percent over the past five years, the corresponding figure for women also increased by 8.7 percent during the same period.

A high blood level of uric acid is the main cause of the disease. The substance forms urate crystals that accumulate in the joints or soft tissue, prompting gout attacks accompanied by intense pain.

Because estrogen helps the kidneys effectively excrete uric acid, women in their reproductive ages are at a lower risk of developing the disease.

High-purine foods such as organ meats, alcohol and soft drinks can increase the risk of gout.

Amid an overall growth in gout patients, the disease has become more prevalent among men in their 20s and 30s here. In 2018, the number of male patients in their 20s per 100,000 people came to 573, and the figure soared to 879 in 2022. Figures for those in their 30s and 40s also jumped by more than 30 percent, respectively.

Experts pinpointed an increased intake of sugar-sweetened soft drinks as one of the key reasons behind the surge in the number of younger gout patients.

“Sugar-sweetened soft drinks contain large amounts of fructose, and this can significantly increase uric acid levels in the blood, raising the risk of gout,” said Park Jin-su, an arthritis specialist at NHIS Ilsan Hospital in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province.

Protein shakes, which many young people are consuming as dietary supplements these days, also can raise uric acid levels, Park added.

The market for gout treatment is similarly growing rapidly. According to the Health Insurance Review & Assessment Service, combined spending on gout treatment at local hospitals was 42 billion won ($31.7 million) in 2022, more than doubling from 17 billion won in 2012.

Local pharmaceutical companies LG Chem and JW Pharmaceutical have been aware of the upward trend and developing their own gout therapeutics.

The two companies are currently conducting phase 3 clinical trials for gout treatment candidates, looking toward global launches.

“The gout therapeutics market is expected to become a lucrative market, as there is a limited number of solutions available for increasing gout patients,” an official from LG Chem said.

According to JW Pharmaceutical’s business report, there are some 34 million gout patients aged 15 or older globally, and the figure is expected to surpass 38 million by 2025. The market for treatments is estimated to reach $2 billion next year.