Britain has world's worst rate of asthma

Britain has the world's highest level of asthma, according to a major global survey, with as many as nine million people who have now suffered from the disease.

Britain has the world's highest level of asthma, according to a major global survey, with as many as nine million people who have now suffered from the disease.

The finding by the Global Initiative for Asthma (Gina) - an umbrella group of the world's leading experts in the disease - is based on the most exhaustive study so far of asthma's growth into one of the planet's most serious chronic illnesses.

About 300 million people world-wide have the disease, but Gina has predicted that number could leap to 450 million within 20 years because of creeping urbanisation and industrialisation.

The study has confirmed that one Briton in six - or 16 per cent of the population - is either a chronic asthmatic or has suffered from it during their lives. The figure is highest in Scotland, where nearly one person in five - 18.4 per cent - is estimated to have had the disease.

The report's conclusions - published on Tuesday to mark World Asthma Day - come after several of Britain's most respected experts accused the Government of failing to treat asthma as a major public health problem.

Speaking last week at a Royal Society of Medicine conference co-sponsored by The Independent on Sunday, they called on the Secretary of State for Health, John Reid, to give asthma a much higher priority.

The sharpest criticisms came from Professor Stephen Holgate, the Government's senior adviser on air pollution and a world expert on asthma genetics. He told the audience that asthma and other respiratory illnesses had to be treated on the same level as cancer and heart disease. The UK's world-leading rates of childhood asthma, disclosed in the same survey, were "totally unacceptable," he said.

In his opening speech at the conference, Professor Holgate said the UK also had the second highest incidence of all lung diseases in Europe.

In March, Mr Reid said asthma would feature prominently in a new plan to focus on chronic diseases, alongside diabetes, and his officials have also made asthma a higher priority for GPs.

However, despite evidence that more than 5.2 million Britons suffer at any one time from asthma and 1,400 die each year, The Independent on Sunday has found that only about £5m a year is spent on asthma research - far less than on other major diseases.

By comparison, the disease is estimated to cost the NHS about £850m in medicines and hospital visits and the wider economy about £2bn a year in lost days at work and school.

Last Wednesday's conference also heard about innovative new treatments for asthma, however. Professor Holgate revealed that one new drug, Omalizumab, would be released in the UK next year.

Professor John Warner, an expert in child medicine, said recent studies suggested it was becoming far easier to predict if a child would become asthmatic - based largely on whether their airways were "twitchy" in infancy. The latest studies suggested that asthma could soon be cured in early life, and may ultimately be preventable while an infant is still in the womb.

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