Life-threatening lung disease: Europe’s ‘unknown’ killer

MEPs have asked the European Commission to up research and spending on the disease, which is primarily caused by smoking. [©EFANET]

This article is part of our special report The true face of the second leading cause of death.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease that results in changes in several different parts of the respiratory system and lungs at the same time. But it is far more than just a ‘smoker’s cough’.

Its main cause is the usual suspect: smoking or passive smoking. But indoor and outdoor air pollution also plays its role.

WHO warns that COPD is not simply a “smoker’s cough” but a life-threatening lung disease that may progressively lead to death.

In 2004, WHO estimated that 64 million people suffered from the disease and 3 million died from it. The UN body also predicted that COPD would become the third leading cause of death worldwide by 2030.

But a study published in the “Lancet Global Burden of Disease” last September showed that in 2015, 3.2 million people died from COPD worldwide, an increase of 11.6% compared with 1990 and it’s the second cause of death worldwide.

Often underdiagnosed, COPD’s symptoms include breathlessness and a chronic cough.

The economic burden

In addition to the severe health impact, the economic burden is also enormous, according to estimates.

The EU pays a heavy price for respiratory diseases amounting to more than €380 billion annually, ranging from healthcare to lost production.

The annual costs of healthcare and lost productivity particularly due to COPD are estimated at €48.4 billion.

Several lawmakers in the European Parliament have signed a declaration 2017 on chronic respiratory diseases, urging the Commission and Council to take immediate measure to address this critical situation, focusing on prevention, especially for smoking, and an early diagnosis.

At diagnosis level, MEPs stressed that respiratory education for medical students and primary care physicians should be strengthened as well as access for all diagnosed patients to reimbursed state-of-the-art therapy to be ensured.

“It is necessary to guarantee rehabilitation using any required multidisciplinary intervention to keep people in the workforce and in their own homes for as long as possible,” the MEPs pointed out.

Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP from the S&D group and one of the initiators of the declaration, said “we asked the Commission to boost research into the causes of chronic respiratory diseases as they account for more than 315,000 European deaths every year”.

“Diseases such as respiratory allergy, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) cost more than €300 billion per year. We managed to gather 249 signatures from our fellow MEPs, but there is still work to do in order to achieve our target,” Kaili told EURACTIV, adding that the Parliament will work closely with the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients’ Associations (EFA) to prevent the onset of these diseases for future generations.

The role of screening

EFA President Mikaela Odemyr highlighted the role of COPD screening, claiming that it determines life expectancy in Europe

“We are the affected patients and see many possibilities for the European Union to combat this disease. It is not just about our lives and families, which should be enough to act with determination, but also that COPD is an expensive, heavy and long disease that can be approached differently to support patients being active,” Odemyr noted.

“I think the EU has the capacity to gather best practices and promote a harmonised approach to tackle COPD, to promote minimum standards of care for any patient in the EU,” she concluded.