Ireland has some of the highest death rates in Europe for a little known but preventable chronic lung condition, experts have claimed.
The potential killer, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease - mainly caused by smoking, makes it hard for sufferers to breathe due to obstruction of airways in the lungs and affects about 440,000 people in the country.
But the level of deaths is higher than in former Eastern bloc countries like Kazakhstan and Romania - a bout 1,300-1,500 Irish people a year.
A week-long free screening is taking place across the country next month to identify people living with the disease - which includes two main conditions, e mphysema and chronic bronchitis .
Professor Tim McDonnell, national clinical lead with the Health Service Executive (HSE) COPD programme, said the mortality rate in Ireland was worrying.
"COPD is major contributor to hospitalisations and has a detrimental impact on quality of life," he said.
"Early diagnosis is essential for the effective treatment of COPD, but even severe cases can be improved with treatment including pulmonary rehabilitation programmes."
Prof McDonnell warned that the prevalence of COPD is going to increase, and by 2020 it is estimated that it will be the third leading cause of death worldwide.
Alex White, junior minister at the Department of Health, launched a new pa tient organisation to support the near half a million Irish people living with the disease.
About 85-90% of COPD deaths are caused by smoking, but exposure to smoke, fumes, dust is also responsible, researchers have found.
It mainly affects people over 40 and is marked by frequent bouts of coughing or wheezing, breathlessness and tiring easily from everyday tasks, such as climbing stairs or household chores.
Michael McGloin, president of COPD Support Ireland, was diagnosed with the condition 14 years ago.
"This disease needs to be prioritised immediately if we are to avoid a future health time bomb," he said.
"When I was first diagnosed with COPD in 1999, I found it hard to learn more about the disease and what I could expect from it. This led me to set up a support group in Sligo to help others with this condition.
"I hope that the development of this national organisation will provide much needed support and comfort for those currently living with the disease, and also those recently diagnosed."
Recent research found that more than a third of people with COPD said it had a detrimental effect on their careers, while the vast majority of those surveyed were not familiar with its symptoms.