Did you know that one in 10 Europeans has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease? Frighteningly, the condition – more usually known as COPD – is the fifth leading cause of death worldwide. More recently, experts are predicting that within 15 years it will have advanced to become the third biggest killer globally. In fact, it is the only major cause of death in Europe whose incidence is actually on the increase.
The financial costs involved also make for stark reading: COPD outpatient care in the EU costs €4.7bn annually, while in-hospital care notches up another €2.9bn. Then there is the €2.7bn in pharmaceutical expenses to consider.
Economically and socially, the burden this disease creates is undeniable. Yet it is a condition that many people still know little about. Finding breathing increasingly problematic is often the first sign of the disease, and although the symptoms, which include wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness, can be manageable at first; they become progressively worse over time. Sadly, it is also irreversible, albeit, frustratingly, almost always preventable. That’s because tobacco is the direct cause in about 90 per cent of COPD cases. And the more cigarettes people smoke the more they are at risk. Let’s not forget the indirect impact either – we know that children of smokers can develop COPD without ever inhaling a cigarette themselves.
In my capacity as an MEP, I believe absolutely that I have a responsibility to help fight this disease, not least through the better promotion of awareness among EU citizens. After all, the cost of being oblivious is simply too great to bear: too great for health services, too great for society, and, of course, too great for the patients themselves along with their families.
We first need to continue building on the EU’s strong anti-smoking stance. While promoting healthy living and exercise are important preventative steps, I would like to see the pricing, marketing, packaging, display and distribution of tobacco products further controlled. Anti-smoking public health campaigns in all member states can always be bolstered, particularly those that target young people.
"… Chronic diseases are responsible for 86 per cent of deaths in the EU"
I have previously in writing asked the commission to properly tackle this prevailing lack of COPD awareness. At the very least, they should certainly consider better funding for respiratory diseases research. But even while shouting loud and clear, I have seen how a single voice isn’t always easily heard. At least there is one statistic that’s tough to ignore: chronic diseases are responsible for 86 per cent of deaths in the EU. And that is a number that should shock every influential commissioner into action.
Europe needs an immediate strategy, not least because our population is ageing and chronic illnesses will increasingly feature in some capacity in all our lives. Prevention is always better than cure, but when people do get sick they need to have better access to healthcare professionals who really specialise in this area. I have also seen how a move towards community-based treatment can be hugely effective. Meanwhile, technology can be used in many wonderful ways – smartphone apps are just one example – and collective medical databases save money and share knowledge.
To those that smoke, I say stop. To those who don’t, ensure you never start. And together, all of us Europeans must become more aware of the symptoms of COPD because, as with all chronic diseases, the earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome.