Britain wheezes at bottom of European lung league

Data from The European Respiratory Society’s (ERS) new European Lung White Book shows that the death rate from respiratory diseases in the UK is 105 per 100,000 people, which is twice the EU average. The only countries with a higher rate are former Soviet Union countries - Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – and Ireland.
Illnesses such as lung cancer, asthma, pneumonia and COPD are now killing more people in the UK than coronary heart disease – that is one in four – and respiratory diseases are now the most common long-term illness among children and the most common illness responsible for an emergency admission to hospital.
The ERS report also reveals:
  • More people in the UK suffer from asthma than anywhere else in Europe.  5.1 million people in the UK suffer from asthma (10-13% of the adult population) compared to the lowest in Georgia, where only 0.28% of the population suffer
  • The UK has the highest mortality rates from pneumonia compared with any other European country
  • The UK has the second highest death rate from lung cancer (66 per 100,000 people compared to a European average of 45.9 per 100,000)
  • By 2020, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which includes illnesses such as emphysema and bronchitis) is likely to account for over 6 million deaths worldwide, making it the third leading cause of death worldwide. Twenty times as many people died from COPD (30,634) than from asthma (1,521) in the UK in 1999.
The European Lung White Book also illustrates the major financial burden of respiratory disease. The total annual economic cost of respiratory diseases in Europe amounts to nearly 102 billion Euros.
In the UK, respiratory disease costs the NHS more than any other disease area. The economic cost of production losses is estimated at £3,194 million per year and the Department of Social Security said in 2000 that 28 million working days were lost due to respiratory related illnesses.
Professor Walter McNicholas, President of The European Respiratory Society commented: “Respiratory diseases are the leading cause of death in Europe, and, indeed, worldwide, yet despite these statistics, these illnesses have a lower profile than many other disease areas such as heart disease.”
“Although the highly prioritised diseases in government target areas such as heart disease and cancer are showing real progress, others such as respiratory disease are continuing to be ignored. Governments around the world must widen their vision to include lung disorders, which are responsible for more than 9 million deaths worldwide each year.”
The ERS suggests Europe-wide policies are needed to help turn the tide against lung disease:
  • Europe-wide education programmes on the symptoms of lung diseases such as TB, asthma and lung cancer
  • Greater professional training and education for healthcare professionals
Professor Yves Sibille, Chair of the European Lung Foundation (ELF) commented:
“More people smoke today than at any other time in history and one person dies every nine seconds due to a smoking-related disease.”
“However, this report highlights that lung diseases are actually influenced by a number of risk factors, such as environmental and occupational hazards, all requiring different approaches.”
“It is imperative that efforts are made on a European scale to focus on preventing respiratory disease and improving patient care. The situation in Europe not only calls for a cleaner environment but also for improved education and scientific research in the field of respiratory medicine.”
Dr Edmund Neville, chairman of the British Thoracic Society (BTS) commented: “These statistics are shocking. Britain has been left wheezing at the bottom of the European lung health league for many years. Respiratory disease is not being given the national priority it warrants from the huge burden it imposes on both patients and the NHS.”
“A key factor is disease discrimination in the NHS and its lack of funding. Respiratory disease is not currently one of the priority areas defined in the Government’s national strategy for health and it does not have a National Service Framework (NSF). We would welcome the opportunity to work with Government to create an NSF for respiratory medicine to help ease the pressure on lung specialists and provide patients with the level of treatment they deserve.”
In the UK, the BTS believes that the following policies are urgently needed to address the problem:
  • A National Service Framework for respiratory medicine
  • Greater investment in resources for equipment and more specialists
  • National education programmes on key lung diseases
  • Increased research funding

The European Lung White Book is the first comprehensive survey on respiratory health in Europe and shows for the first time how respiratory disease affects European health systems as well as the individual.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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