The UK has the highest death rate for lung conditions in western Europe, research reveals, prompting calls from health leaders for urgent action to tackle the “national scandal”.
More than 100,000 people in the UK die from conditions including asthma attacks, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pneumonia every year, according to data analysis by the charity Asthma and Lung UK.
Across Europe, only Turkey has a higher respiratory death rate than the UK, analysis of data up to 2018 shows, the latest comparable data available from across the continent. The death rate is 162.7 per 100,000 people in Turkey and 134.5 in the UK.
In Germany, the rate is 76.8 while in France it is 59.1 – half the UK rate. People in the UK are three times more likely to die from lung conditions than people in Finland, which has the lowest respiratory death rate (38.4) in Europe, Asthma and Lung UK said.
It described the UK figures as “shameful”, and said that lung conditions had been treated for too long like the “poor relation compared with other major illnesses like cancer and heart disease”.
Despite them being the third biggest cause of death in the UK, only 2% of publicly funded research is spent on lung conditions, it added. The charity is calling for more funding to research diagnostic tools and treatments, and urged ministers to bring in tougher clean air targets. It also called for improvements in the care of patients outside the hospital.
Even before the pandemic, significant numbers of lung patients were not receiving “basic care” from their GP services such as medicine checks and help using their inhalers, the charity said. Over the past two years, the health of thousands more has deteriorated while they waited for respiratory care, and diagnosis rates have fallen.
Katy Brown, 64, a retired nursery nurse from Bristol, who was diagnosed with COPD in February 2021, said she was shocked by the lack of medical support she has received, and the poor general awareness of her condition.
“I spent two years struggling to breathe and with constant chest infections, before I finally got a diagnosis of COPD,” she said. “Even now, over a year after my diagnosis, I’m still waiting for a test that will show how bad my condition is, and further treatment.
“There is a lack of awareness about how serious lung conditions are and how terrifying it is to struggle to breathe. It’s like having an elephant sitting on your chest. If I’d been diagnosed with another serious condition like a heart problem, I believe my treatment and the way I was dealt with would have been completely different.”
Sarah Woolnough, the chief executive of Asthma and Lung UK, urged ministers to triple funding for respiratory research to identify new ways of diagnosing and treating people with lung conditions, tackle air pollution and ensure better diagnosis and care for everyone with a lung condition.
She added: “The state of lung health in the UK is shameful, with more than 100,000 people dying every year from lung conditions, the numbers of hospital admissions increasing, and air pollution causing people to develop lung conditions or making existing ones worse.
“It is a national scandal that people are more likely to die from a lung condition in the UK than almost anywhere in Europe. We need urgent action now. The pandemic has brought it to people’s attention that lung conditions can and do kill and how terrifying it can be to struggle with breathlessness.”