Standing up for COPD sufferers

MEPs want to see the European Union and member states step up their activities on tackling the prevention and diagnosis of severe respiratory diseases.

In the EU, 4-10 per cent of adults suffer from COPD | Photo credit: Adobe Stock

By Rajnish Singh

Rajnish Singh is Commissioning Editor at the Parliament Magazine

15 Nov 2017

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a life-threatening lung disease that inhibits normal breathing.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates globally that 384 million people suffer with COPD, leading to 3.2 million deaths worldwide.

Although the exact figure for Europe is unknown, a study published in 2015 suggests that 66 million people in WHO Europe region are affected.


The European COPD Coalition (ECC) estimates that in the EU, 4-10 per cent of adults suffer from the disease, with both men and women almost equally affected.

The costs of COPD are also massive, according to the ECC. Expenses in Europe related to outpatient care are approximately €4.7bn per year, while hospital costs are estimated to be €2.9bn and drug treatment at €2.7bn.

MEPs across the political groups have recognised the problems caused by respiratory diseases for many years.

As long ago as 2007, UK S&D group deputy, Catherine Stihler helped launched a written declaration on combating COPD. Although she believes significant progress has been made in the last 10 years, she stressed that “although more undiagnosed cases are being found, the number of people with COPD still remains excessively high.”

Highlighting how great a problem severe respiratory disease are to Europeans, Stihler said that 1.2 million people in the UK alone have been diagnosed with COPD. This makes it the second most common lung disease in Britain after asthma.

She wanted to see “a holistic approach to combatting the condition, by helping those that suffer from COPD and preventing people from developing the disease in the first place.”

With 90 per cent of cases caused by cigarette smoking, Stihler believes that, “the natural target for preventative measures are anti-smoking campaigns aimed at the people most vulnerable to smoking.”

With smoking more common in socially deprived communities, Stihler pointed out the link between poverty and COPD, with 90 per cent of related deaths occurring in middle to low income countries. 

“More can be done to help those living with the condition to have a better quality of life, while anti-smoking laws and education can help prevent people contracting the disease in the first place,” she said.

COPD is a group of lung conditions that make it difficult to empty air from the lungs because airways have been narrowed.

Two of these lung conditions are persistent bronchitis and emphysema, which can also occur simultaneously. Bronchitis means the airways are inflamed and narrowed; people with bronchitis often produce sputum, or phlegm. Emphysema affects the air sacs at the end of the airways in the lungs. These break down and the lungs become baggy and full of holes that trap air.

The main symptoms include shortness of breath easily when carrying out everyday activities such as going for a walk or doing housework, having a cough that lasts a long time, wheezing in cold weather and producing more sputum or phlegm than usual. A patient may have these symptoms all the time, or they may appear or get worse when a su¬fferer has an infection or breathes in smoke or fumes.

Recognising that the scale of COPD remains substantial despite almost 10 years since the 2007 written declaration, in 2016 MEPs launched a further cross-party written declaration on chronic respiratory diseases.

Co-author of the declaration and member of Parliament’s environment, public health and food safety (ENVI) committee, Karin Kadenbach, said, “There is still a long way to go to provide every COPD patient with early diagnosis that will help them control the disease.”

The Austrian deputy believes that, “EU research funding can enable the development of more effective diagnostic and control techniques, but right now, the inclusion of simple spirometry in health check-ups among people at risk can already make a huge difference in people’s lives.”

With higher rates of pollution in European cities impacting people’s lives, MEPs are recognising its contribution to people suffering COPD symptoms.

Declaration co-signatory Italian EFDD MEP Piernicola Pedicni said, “In order to effectively address chronic respiratory diseases, we must fight one of the major risk factors - pollution.”

He pointed out that the European Environmental Agency (EEA) has calculated that almost 500,000 people died in 2012 from exposure to air pollution. The Italian deputy believes that “Member states need to commit to a renewable energy and circular economy society instead of subsidising fossil fuels and incinerators.”

Stihler, who was also an author on the 2016 written declaration, backed Pedicini, “The quality of air is also important in combatting this illness.

Dust and ‘dirty’ air can contribute to the development of COPD and severely affect the quality of life for those living with the disease. Since 2007, European institutions have introduced a raft of measures to combat climate change. By cleaning up our air, and adopting legislation that targets pollution and emissions, we can improve the health of our citizens.”

GUE/NGL group co-author of the written declaration, Katerina Konecná, believed better and earlier recognition of symptoms is key to helping sufferers, “Most patients go to a doctor too late.” 

Yet she also warned that, “Unfortunately, no medicine can prevent COPD, even when complex and very expensive treatment is available.”

For the Czech deputy prevention of the disease is therefore as important as treatment. “We have to raise awareness of this condition. That is why events like World COPD Day are very important.”

Croatian S&D MEP, Biljana Borzan, backed her fellow co-authors, calling on the EU and member states to “step up prevention and offer timely and accurate diagnosis, by ensuring medical access for all diagnosed patients.”

She wants to see, “state-of-the-art therapy and guaranteed rehabilitation by using any required (medical) multidisciplinary intervention to keep people in the workforce and in their own homes for as long as possible.”


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