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COPD: An invisible killer

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 17:20

Education, teaching and learning must remain at the core of any smoking cessation strategy.

By Catherine Stihler, Member of the European Parliament for Scotland

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a neglected epidemic.  It is the umbrella term for a group of fatal lung diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

It kills more people in the UK, each year, than both bowel cancer and breast cancer – yet many people still shrug their shoulders when they hear its name. Over 24,000 British citizens died in 2005 from the disease.  Its recognition rate is so low that many health professionals now refer to it as the ‘invisible killer’, despite the fact that it is the only major disease whose incidence is on the increase each year.

Back in 2007, in a move strongly welcomed by the British Lung Foundation and other leading medical professional groups, I launched a written declaration in the European Parliament to help combat COPD.  A lot has changed in the past couple of years.  With Scotland introducing the smoking ban in the spring of 2006, followed by England and Wales a year later, cigarette sales have dropped and attitudes toward smoking have changed a great deal.  The emergence of smoke-free zones in other European states reflects similar trends that we are seeing across the UK. Recent figures also indicate that the parliamentary decision to increase the legal smoking age from 16 to 18 has significantly reduced teenage smoking rates.

Yet these bold legislative victories have not translated into lower rates of COPD, a disease which is strongly linked with smoking.  To bring attention to these facts, we must ask ourselves: why is such a deadly and debilitating disease almost invisible?  I strongly support the view that we as a society must do more to move toward a smoke- free society, which will not only help to eradicate diseases such as COPD, but reduce rates of heart disease, cancer and other tobacco related illnesses.

If British, European and other representatives from around the world are positive about tackling COPD, then we must push for a co-ordinated, joined up approach.  We need to invest in more policy studies in order to understand the best approach to combating this global problem.  This will not be easy, it will require many resources, but the yearly cost that COPD is having on people’s lives and the pressure that it is putting our health services under cannot be swept aside.  The health cost of undiagnosed COPD patients in the UK is estimated to cost the taxpayer over £3 billion.

We all know the well known proverb: ‘prevention is better than a cure’.  Because more people are likely to smoke in socially and economically deprived areas, we need to focus our attention to those who need it the most.  Education, teaching and learning must remain at the core of any smoking cessation strategy. Until the symptoms, possible treatments and root causes of COPD are widely known, citizens will continue to live oblivious of the disease and its tragic consequences.

The buck does not rest with the health professionals when it comes to deciding how to prevent the rising increase of COPD.  Too often COPD is given little time in environment committees, not only in Britain and in the European Parliament, but throughout the world.  I  would certainly like to see it talked about more in Brussels and Strasbourg, considering that health experts also link the disease to ‘dirty’ and ‘polluted’ air.  By cleaning up our air, getting serious about lowering carbon emissions and investing in ‘green’ renewable technologies, we will improve the health of our citizens.

That is not to say that no progress has been made in the past few years.  Simply talking to my colleagues in the European Parliament and meeting a variety of health experts, I know that there certainly is greater awareness of all of the risks associated with smoking and polluted air.

On the 18th September of this year I am set to attend a European Foundation Lung (ELF) Award presentation, as part of the European Respiratory Society (ERS) Congress in Barcelona.  I and 35 other MEP colleagues will receive a reward for our work and efforts to raise awareness of lung disease and COPD.  It will be an honour to receive the ELF Award and I shall continue to do all I can to raise awareness of the disease and encourage more positive steps to eradicate it.  Later on this year, to mark World COPD Day on 19th November, I am set to co-host a round table event in the UK Office of the European Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland.    I know that Britain has the ability and drive to play a pivotal role in helping the EU to lead the way for greater research, education and treatment.

As Henry Ford famously stated: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”