24th Mar 2018


The worrying state of Europe's lungs

  • “No-one is paying real attention to respiratory diseases," says Catherine Hartmann (Photo: European COPD Coalition)

One of the most frequent chronic diseases in Europe is estimated to take the life of over 250 people worldwide every hour.

Between 4 and 10 percent of all adults in Europe suffers from this relatively unknown disease and it is the only major cause of death in Europe that is actually growing in occurrence - by 60 percent in the last 20 years.

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  • Total deaths from COPD are projected to increase by more than 30 percent in the next ten years (Photo: lanier67)

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease - or COPD - is a life-threatening and irreversible lung disease. Symptoms - such as shortness of breath, wheezing and a chronic cough - get worse over time but can be controlled depending on how early the condition was diagnosed.

COPD is largely preventable but there is a culture a shame around the disease meaning its early treatment is often missed.

“This disease is such a huge medical, social, psychological and painful burden, it is truly unfair that hardly anyone knows about it and cares about it. It is simply unacceptable that it develops at such pace without the attention it deserves from policy makers,” says Catherine Hartmann, head of the European COPD Coalition.

“COPD is completely unknown because of several reasons.” She explains that COPD is seen as a “shameful disease” because patients suffer from the stigma that it is self-inflicted. “But that is wrong because smoking addictiveness is an illness in itself.”

Another reason is the lack of concrete statistics. Patients can live with COPD for a long time - it develops slowly and very often leads to cardiac arrest “and that is what is listed on the death certificate, not COPD,” Hartmann says.

Another important reason, she argues, is the disease's unwieldy name and the lack of advocates fighting to make it well-known.

“There are no information campaign on this illness. There are not enough funds to raise awareness and the public sector does not invest it it either,” Hartmann says.

“No-one is paying real attention to respiratory diseases, EU policy makers, stakeholders, journalists, they are all about cancers, diabetes and heart diseases, but most of them ignore affections of the lungs.”

She is worried about the situation of COPD across Europe. “It is not improving. We don’t have new drugs treatment. Smoking has decreased in some European countries but increased in others. So we haven’t seen any improvements for patients - quite the contrary.”

Tobacco is the direct cause (including passive exposure) in an estimated 90 percent of COPD cases, according to the European COPD Coalition (ECC). Other lung-irritants such as air pollution, chemical fumes and dust can also cause or contribute to it.

Total deaths from COPD are projected to increase by more than 30 percent in the next ten years without interventions to cut risks, particularly exposure to tobacco smoke, reports the World Health Organisation.

COPD progresses as the airways of a person's lungs make more mucus than normal or lose their elasticity which can make it harder to breathe. As it is a slow-progressing disease, patients often do not know that they have COPD leading to either a late or false (asthma) diagnosis.

The total related expenses for care and medicines for COPD sufferers in the European Union adds up to €10.3 billion per year, according to the ECC.

The ECC is calling on the EU to be more active on the issue, particularly in encouraging member states to deal with COPD.

Hartmann is happy with the acknowledgement of COPD at the EU level in the recent EU Summit on Chronic Diseases but she doubts much will come out of the summit for the case of COPD. “

“The EU is poorly equipped to deal with specific diseases,” says Hartmann, adding: “We have to be clever and put COPD on their agenda.”

She notes that perseverance pays off. There is an EU cancer plan while Alzheimer's, a form of dementia, is on the political agenda.

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