Lung disease `time-bomb' threatens the young

Smoking and medicine: World-wide profits from cigarette sales continue to grow as doctors warn of Britain's new health crisis
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Health Editor

Lung disease among Britain's young is now a major health problem, doctors warned yesterday. A new study has revealed that up to half the children under five suffer from acute coughing and wheezing.

The wide-ranging review of lung disease at the end of the 20th century, published by the British Lung Foundation, highlights the growing threat of tuberculosis, occupational asthma, and the toll still taken by smoking- related diseases.

"Lung disease in babies and children may be a time-bomb waiting to explode," said Michael Silverman, a professor of child health at Leicester University, at the launch of the The Lung Report yesterday.

"Urgent research is needed into wheezing in the very young. This may be the period when the seeds of long term lung problems are sown," he added.

However, the report focuses mainly on the young and reveals that a quarter of all admissions to children's wards are for lung problems. During winter months, GPs and hospital services are "overwhelmed" by demand from children with acute respiratory infections.

The impact of childhood lung disease can also be long-term, according to Professor Silverman. This leads not only to asthma, but also to chronic lung disorders in middle and old age. Early on, a child's social and educational development can be harmed by regular school absences.

Babies born very prematurely are most vulnerable. A disease known as CLD (chronic lung disease of prematurity) causes breathing problems and affects the ability of children to exercise and to withstand air pollution, possibly with lifelong consequences. Over 30 million antibiotics are prescribed for respiratory infections each year.

The foundation yesterday launched an appeal to fund a three-year research programme into lung disease in the very young. It also echoed concerns about the provision of paediatric intensive care for children with respiratory problems, citing a national shortage of 72 beds.

The report, by a team of lung specialists, renews calls for a ban on tobacco advertising and says Government targets for cutting smoking and reducing lung cancer cannot be met unless this happens.

Tuberculosis is making a "global comeback," it also reveals. There were around 7,000 new cases diagnosed in Britain last year, with increased poverty and homelessness thought to be factors. New occupational health services are also needed to reduce the number of people who are forced to leave jobs because of occupational asthma, costing the NHS up to pounds 40m a year, the review adds.

n The Lung Report: a shadow over the nation's health. British Lung Foundation, 78 Hatton Garden, London EC1N 8JR.