Cooperating to combat COPD - a killer lung disease

Biljana Borzan demands a “more dedicated and focused European” action to address a disease that kills tens of thousands.

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By Biljana Borzan

03 Mar 2020


In Europe, four to ten percent of adults suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and 200,000 - 300,000 people die of COPD each year.

The total COPD-related expenses for outpatient care in the EU is approximately €4.7 billion per year. Inpatient care generates costs of €2.9 billion, while pharmaceutical expenses add a further €2.7 billion per year.

When comparing asthma and COPD, there are many similarities and connections but also some key differences.


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COPD is mainly due to damage caused by smoking, while asthma is due to an inflammatory reaction.

COPD is a progressive disease, while allergic reactions of asthma can be reversible. Initial symptoms can be similar in both diseases; for example, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, wheezing and cough.

Both diseases can have severe, dangerous signs and symptoms - a bluish discoloration of the skin and respiratory distress. Patients may even die.

“It is important to recognise that COPD is more than a “smoker’s cough”; it is a life-threatening lung disease”

This can lead to confusion or misdiagnosis. Initial treatments for COPD include bronchodilators, while initial treatments for asthma include inhaled corticosteroids.

COPD usually develops after the age of 40 and often becomes a chronic disease of lung function, while asthma may develop in people of almost any age.

Most people with asthma will not develop COPD, and many people with COPD do not have asthma.

However, it is possible to have both. Asthma-COPD overlap syndrome (ACOS) occurs when someone has both diseases at the same time.

A few years ago, I asked the European Commission several questions on actions planned on for COPD at the EU level.

I wanted to know whether the Commission would commit to providing more funding to respiratory diseases research, to address the root causes more fully and acquire a better understanding of the development of COPD.

In addition, I asked if there was a plan to create an EU-wide framework to allow cooperation between researchers and reduce the duplication of work.

The answer, by the then Commissioner Moedas, was as general as would be expected.

On funding, he answered that the Seventh Framework Programme for Research, Technological Development and Demonstration Activities FP7 supported 194 projects on respiratory diseases and lung cancer research to a total of €350million, of which €52.8 million and 14 projects specifically address Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

“The statistics on COPD and associated costs demonstrate the need for a more dedicated and focused European answer”

On the second question, the answer was that Horizon 2020 offers reinforced opportunities to support research on COPD through the “Health, demographic change and wellbeing” societal challenge and its “Excellent science” and “Industrial leadership” pillars.

He also added that there was €65 million in support for respiratory disease research as a result of the 2014- 2015 Horizon 2020 call for proposals within the “Health, demographic change and wellbeing” challenge.

Four out of the 15 projects funded address COPD research for an overall value of €10.8 million. The projects will lead to a better understanding of COPD development and develop methods for its early diagnosis.

In my opinion, the statistics on COPD and associated costs demonstrate the need for a more dedicated and focused European answer.

The magnitude of the issue and the societal burden is such that failing to present a collective and coordinated response to COPD would inevitably further affect economies and communities.

This would likely result in increased care and treatment costs, for employers, individuals and health systems, including the loss of labour productivity and reduced economic growth. It is important to recognise that COPD is more than a “smoker’s cough”; it is a life-threatening lung disease.

Tackling COPD effectively requires cooperation by stakeholders including physicians, patient organisations, caregivers, life science representatives and politicians within a coordinated framework.

The EU must address key risk factors in all relevant policies and sectors, taking into consideration the social, cultural, gender, economic and environmental determinants of health.

A dedicated EU COPD framework should aim to improve the health and the quality of life of European citizens, including persons at risk of, or affected by, COPD.

Based on the common European values of universal healthcare, access to good quality care, equity and solidarity, and encouraging innovation, the COPD framework should encompass health promotion, disease prevention, medical and psychological support, and the social and environmental aspects of the disease.

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