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Britain ‘lagging behind’ in treatment for sleep disorder

‘Lack of awareness’ about debilitating complaint from which Ed Miliband suffered

The UK is lagging behind other countries in diagnosing and treating the debilitating sleep disorder for which Ed Miliband required surgery, a leading charity has warned.

New research from the British Lung Foundation has revealed “significant and concerning” inequalities between different parts of the UK in the availability of “sleep medicine” to treat the common condition obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).

Across the country, only 50 sleep centres offer full diagnostic tests. That is the equivalent of one for every 1.25 million people – a ratio that is around 10 times higher in the US. Researchers said that as many as 80 per cent of OSA cases may have been missed.

OSA is a condition that causes interrupted breathing during sleep. It occurs when the muscles and soft tissues in the throat relax to the extent that they block the airway during sleep for 10 seconds or more. It can seriously damage the quality of sleep, by either waking the sufferer up or causing them to periodically come out of deep sleep. Sufferers can be left feeling consistently tired, and the condition has been linked to conditions such as heart disease, depression and strokes.

It is associated with being overweight, and is more likely to occur later in life. It is estimated to affect 4 per cent of middle-aged men and 2 per cent of middle-aged women, but once diagnosed can be easily treated. Labour leader Mr Miliband had surgery at the Royal Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in London to cure OSA, caused by a deviated nasal septum, in 2011.

The study, carried out with clinicians from Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, and published in the journal Thorax today, compared predicted prevalence of OSA – based on data for the five most common risk factors: obesity, type 2 diabetes, older age, high blood pressure, and gender – with the provision of sleep centres.

Sixty-six of the 213 clinical commissioning group areas in England had no sleep centres. In total there were 289 sleep centres in the UK, but only 50 offered polysomnography – a comprehensive sleep test that can identify a wide range of disorders. In the USA, 2,461 accredited sleep centres offer polysomnography, catering for a population of just over 310 million, the study’s authors said.

Parts of mid-Wales, the North-west and East Anglia had the lowest provision of sleep centres, while large urban areas were generally better-served.

Dr Penny Woods, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation said: “The disparity between the predicted prevalence of OSA and the distribution of sleep centres with which to diagnose and treat the condition show that there is much to be done if we are to properly address the burden OSA currently places on the health of the nation… With rates of OSA likely to rise further with an ageing and increasingly overweight population, I hope this research will act as a wake-up call for governments and NHS bodies across the UK.”

Professor Adrian Williams, Medical Advisor at the British Lung Foundation, Professor of Sleep Medicine at Guys and St Thomas' Hospital, and co-author of the study: “Too often, a lack of awareness leads to the symptoms of OSA being not recognised, or dismissed simply as an irritation for anyone who shares a room with someone affected…OSA is easily treatable in a way that can successfully minimise the associated risks. This makes it all the more frustrating that, as highlighted by this research, it may be difficult to identify and offer treatment to those in need across large parts of the country.”