Asthma: An under the radar issue

ON AVERAGE three people die each day from asthma in the UK. Asthma is an incurable condition that affects the respiratory system. It could be described as hypersensitivity of the airways in response to triggers such as allergens or irritants, pollution and pollens, dust mites or even vigorous exercise. If something irritates these airways, the body can react in a number of ways, such as swelling of the lining of the airways, tightening of the
muscles in the walls of the airways and overproduction of phlegm and mucus in the lungs. All of these reactions combined make it difficult to breathe by restricting the airflow of those afflicted.

Two years ago, on 23 October 2014, I lost one of closest friends to asthma. It was completely unfathomable. How could I be unaware that this common respiratory

Image: Flickr

Image: Flickr

condition can be fatal? I don’t think I am entirely alone in not understanding the severity of the condition. So what is asthma, to what extent does it affect the UK population and what research is being done into this disease?

According to Asthma UK, 5.4 million people in the country suffer from asthma. This adds up to being 1 in 12 adults and 1 in 11 children, amongst the highest rates in Europe.  Of these sufferers, three a day will die from their condition. Around ten per cent of those
affected by asthma are described as having severe asthma, which is much harder to treat and manage. In 2015, the Office for National Statistics showed that the annual death rate to asthma hit its highest rate of the last ten years in England and Wales, standing at 1302,
an increase of 17 per cent since 2014.

Although there is no cure for asthma, the NHS spends around £1bn per year treating the condition and in most cases it’s manageable. In 1955, the pressurised metered dose inhaler
was developed to treat asthma and 61 years later, this method is still used. The most common drug treatment programmes for asthma revolve around the use of corticosteroids, normally in inhaled forms such as beclomethasone. For around 250 000 patients per year, the standard steroid inhaler treatments aren’t effective.

A relatively new drug Xolair has helped some of these worst cases. This drug, developed by Professor Brian Sutton and his team with investment from Asthma UK, works by blocking a protein called IgE. Essentially, this prevents it from reacting with allergens in the first place, rather than treating the symptoms. The research carried out by Professor Clive Robinson, funded by the Wellcome Trust and Asthma UK, means they are now close to carrying out clinical trials for a method to prevent various allergies. This again is the concept of treating the cause rather than the symptoms.  It is hoped that this approach will lead to more effective asthma management and possibly eventually complete symptom cessation.

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