The huge financial and medical burden of Britain's record levels of asthma would be heavily cut if ministers introduced basic health plans for all Britain's asthmatics, scientists have claimed.
More than 5.2 million Britons suffer from asthma - the highest level in the world - costing the NHS about £850m and the economy more than £2bn each year. About 18 million working days are lost due to asthma attacks annually, and more than 1,400 people die from attacks each year.
But this week senior experts will tell a major national conference on asthma, which is being co-sponsored by The Independent on Sunday, that these costs could be dramatically reduced if ministers improved the basic care given to asthmatics.
Professor Martyn Partridge, chief scientific adviser to the National Asthma Campaign, which is also sponsoring the Royal Society of Medicine conference, will call for all sufferers from the disease to be given "personal care plans" to help them manage their illness far better.
Professor Partridge cites compelling evidence from countries such as Australia, Norway and Finland, where death rates, hospital visits and medical bills have all fallen after individually tailored "personal plans" were introduced.
The plans involve showing asthmatics how to predict when attacks will happen, how to use their drugs properly and what triggers to avoid. In Australia, every branch of McDonald's gave out brochures on how a personal plan could work.
One expert body, the Global Strategy for Asthma Management and Prevention, reported that for every pound spent on training sufferers to use these plans, between £2.50 and £7 would be saved on drugs, medical treatment and economic losses through days off due to illness.
But in Britain, asthma specialists believe successive governments have failed to listen to expert advice about these programmes, which were first highlighted in the British Medical Journal 14 years ago. Last week, personal plans were again officially endorsed by the NHS's expert advisers on asthma.
Studies have suggested that, in Britain, as few as 3 per cent of asthmatics have these plans. But another project found this figure rose to 28 per cent for patients who had had severe attacks - suggesting that at least 3.5 million sufferers are not properly taught how to manage the disease.
Professor Partridge, professor of respiratory medicine at Imperial College, admitted that doctors were also at fault for not adopting this strategy sooner, and said: "These plans can have a real impact on the suffering of people with asthma - making their lives easier and their asthma much less of a burden."
Wendy Barton, 28, a severe asthmatic who works for the National Trust and has had the disease since infancy, said she managed to cut back heavily on medication after devising her own personal plan several years ago and finding another extremely effective drug. After a history of visiting A&E once a month, she has not been in an emergency ward for two years.
Since her drugs are on prescription, the annual cost of Ms Barton's drugs for the NHS is still more than £1,550 - illustrating the heavy costs for taxpayers of the asthma epidemic. Ms Barton said: "Through experience and through knowing my condition, I have managed to reduce my drug use considerably day to day."
Professor Partridge's call will increase pressure on the Secretary of State for Health, John Reid, to step up the Government's spending on basic care for people with long-term illnesses, particularly asthma and diabetes.
'Medicine and Me: Asthma' will be held at the Royal Society of Medicine, 1 Wimpole Street, London W1, on Wednesday 28 April, 12.45 - 5.15pm. £10. See www.asthma.org.uk for further details.