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Thousands could have undiagnosed killer lung disease

Lives could be prolonged and NHS bills slashed through early diagnosis and treatment of chronic lung conditions in Northern Ireland, it was claimed today.

Around 27,000 people are undergoing treatment for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) — an umbrella term for conditions including bronchitis and emphysema — but Northern Ireland Chest, Heart & Stroke Association (NICHSA) believes thousands more have symptoms but have not been diagnosed.

While COPD cannot be cured and is predicted by the World Health Organisation to become the third biggest global killer by 2030, it can be managed which would lead to a dramatic reduction in the number of people requiring treatment every year.

“Better diagnosis and early intervention could reduce the death rate, cut hospital admissions and save the health service some of the £47m it costs to treat respiratory illnesses — including COPD and asthma — in Northern Ireland each year,” Andrew Dougal, chief executive of NICHSA said.

“We would urge people with symptoms like constant coughing, wheezing or breathlessness to have them checked out. COPD has been an invisible illness for too long and we plan to change that in 2010.”

Lorraine Robinson from Antrim was diagnosed with emphysema after she found it increasingly difficult to do even simple tasks without getting out of breath.

“I was having coughing fits and breathlessness so I went to the doctor and was told I have emphysema,” she said.

“My twin sister, Patricia, had the same sort of symptoms and I told her to go to the doctor and she was diagnosed with emphysema as well. She was much worse than me by then though and she died at the age of 58. If she had been diagnosed earlier she would have survived longer.”

NICHSA is spending £250,000 this year on research into respiratory illnesses. It was also instrumental in helping to formulate the Department of Health’s Respiratory Service Framework for treatment and it provides 24 support groups for sufferers.

Dr Joe Kidney, consultant physician at Belfast’s Mater Hospital, said: “COPD, if left undiagnosed, can lead to a lot of breathlessness doing normal everyday activities.

“A simple blowing test done at a GP's surgery is all that is needed. Early diagnosis can help avert the progression of this disease.”

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