Are UK asthma deaths among the worst in Europe?

On 1st May 2018, World Asthma Day, the online editions of The Sun, The Mirror, The Express and also The Telegraph all ran with a variation on this shocking headline. But is it true and what are the facts behind it?

The data comes from research into Occupational Illness undertaken by the Office for National Statistics, National Records of Scotland and Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Taken together the records do seem to show that asthma is on the rise in the UK which is indeed lagging behind other major EU nations, especially in relation to preventable deaths caused by asthma.

In 2015 there were 1,434 deaths from asthma: the vast majority were people aged over 65. Death rates have been rising year on year over the past 5 years.

The Royal College of Physicians published a report in 2015 called “Why Asthma Kills”. The finding was startling – yes asthma does kill, but as many as 2/3rds of all these deaths are preventable and 9 out of 10 child deaths need not have happened. Surely these figures are scandalous?

So why does the UK have such a bad record, with only Estonia, Cyprus and Spain faring worse?

The report concludes that better management by GPs, faster referrals to specialists, introduction of annual screening and better guidance on prescription would all be helpful. The British Lung Foundation says that 8 million people (over 12% of the population) have been diagnosed with asthma at some point in their lives. Although only about 5 million people are receiving active treatment (as some children and adults grow out of the condition and no longer require specialist treatment), there are still around 160,000 people  newly diagnosed each year and there are 60,000 hospital admissions. These are sobering figures – but what can be done?

If you or a loved one have asthma the advice is seek medical expert opinion and not suffer in silence. You should put your health first and see your GP for ongoing advice, as well as reactive help following an acute attack. Things you can do to prevent an asthma attack include:

  • Avoid heavy traffic pollution
  • Avoid damp housing (there is a worrying link between deprivation and asthma)
  • Avoid smoke and second hand cigarette smoke
  • Avoid known irritants such as fine dust
  • See a specialist annually and request a PAAP (Personal Asthma Action Plan)
  • Use the correct colour inhaler and always carry it

The RCP report also calls for better training for GPs and more consistent training nationwide in the management and monitoring of people with acute asthma. These are straightforward, sensible suggestions and would more than pay for themselves in terms of fewer emergency admissions.

You could also play your part in trying to reverse the shocking rise in asthma deaths by supporting The British Lung Foundation The Battle for Breath campaign (https://www.blf.org.uk/take-action/campaign/battle-for-breath) and Asthma UK (https://www.asthma.org.uk/) so that by Asthma Awareness Day on 1st May 2019 the tables will have turned and there will have been fewer preventable deaths from this disease.

If you’d like to speak to a member of our Occupational Disease team, please call 0113 232 1030 or email emma.costin@emsleys.co.uk.

Emma Costin

Written by

Emma Costin

Director & Head of Asbestos & Occupational Disease

Emma is a specialist occupational illness and serious injury lawyer. She is a qualified solicitor and barrister with 24 years’ experience of acting for claimants only. Emma is also an accredited mediator. She has vast expertise in industrial disease cases including claims for asbestos illnesses, mesothelioma,...

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