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UK tops European league for asthma sufferers

The UK has more asthma sufferers than any other country in Europe and is among the worst affected in the world, according to a new report.

At least one in seven children aged under 16, and one in 25 adults have been diagnosed with the condition, totalling 3.4 million people. Only Australia and New Zealand have a higher proportion of diagnosed sufferers.

Asthma has been rising rapidly, according to the report by the National Asthma Campaign. The number of adults consulting a doctor for the condition more than trebled in the 20 years to 1991 and is continuing to grow. GPs recorded almost five times as many new episodes of asthma in under-fives in 1993 compared with 1979 and a four-fold increase in five to 14-year- olds.

The cause of asthma remains a mystery and experts are unsure whether the rise is a genuine increase or the result of better diagnosis and increasing awareness. The differences between countries may reflect differences in medical practice and public awareness rather than differences in the prevalence of the disease.

A spokesman for the National Asthma Campaign said: "The international comparisons are based on a standardised questionnaire given to people in up to four cities in each country. It is difficult to draw conclusions from the data but you can't deny the facts."

Possible causes for the rise in asthma include changes in the living environment, such as the introduction of central heating and fitted carpets which harbour house dust mites, and effects on the immune system caused by maternal smoking, vaccinations and the use of antibiotics. Known triggers of asthma attacks include pollution, smoking, dust, stress and exercise but none of these is thought to cause the underlying condition.

The spokesman added: "There is a lot we don't know about asthma but we do know how to manage it and we are getting good at it. People who are diagnosed can be shown how to take control of it so they avoid having asthma attacks."

Data on attacks

Country City Asthma attack %*

UK Cambridge 5.7

France Paris 4.3

Greece Athens 4.2

Italy Turin 4.2

Ireland Dublin 3.6

Denmark Aarhus 3.4

Sweden Uppsala 3.3

Portugal Oporto 3.0

Holland Groningen 3.0

Germany Hamburg 3.0

Belgium Antwerp 2.6

Austria Vienna 2.2

Spain Barcelona 2.1

*Percentage of people aged 20 to 44 who suffered an asthma attack in 1996