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We must stop lung disease prejudices

On the eve of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust’s Awareness Week, the British Lung Foundation’s Director of Policy explains how lung disease is often misunderstood and why the Taskforce for Lung Health, a group of 30 of the most influential voices in respiratory health, believe a national public awareness campaign is key to strengthening people’s understanding of respiratory disease:

Lung disease has an image problem, largely due to the stigma attached to it.

We must challenge people’s perceptions of lung disease – it’s not ‘the smoker’s illness’ as it is often described or portrayed.

Quick access to an early diagnosis and the right treatment for people living with a lung condition is linked to a clear understanding of what good lung health looks like. Stigma can hinder this awareness.

It’s a form of discrimination, whether intentional or not. It can lead to avoidance or delay in seeking treatment. That’s why the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation launched their Head-high campaign, challenging the prejudice around lung cancer.

Anyone can be diagnosed with a lung condition. Lung cancer, COPD, asthma and pulmonary fibrosis are not diseases limited to people who smoke or have smoked in the past. Around 15% of the 46,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer each year are non-smokers and 20% of people diagnosed with COPD have also never smoked.

New opinion research by the British Lung Foundation and Britain Thinks highlights that around 25% of people assume that everyone with a lung condition is a smoker. The fact that a quarter of the population sees smoking as the only cause for lung disease shows a true lack of public awareness. The research also highlights that lung disease is considered less sympathetically than some other illnesses.

Virtually everyone who was asked knew that smoking is a cause of lung disease, but only 52% knew that poor quality housing is a risk factor, and fewer than half thought that lung disease could be genetic.

And 70% of people think that smokers are very likely to get a lung disease, compared with just 20% who thought people living in industrial areas are very likely to develop an illness.

It is true that smoking is a risk factor but it’s far from the only one.

The Royal College of Physicians has highlighted the importance of indoor and outdoor air pollution as a cross cutting issue that either increases the risk of acquiring a range of lung diseases, such as COPD, asthma and cancer, or makes these conditions worse.

People from the most deprived section of society are more than twice as likely to be living with a lung condition and there are 11,000 new cases of breathing or lung problems caused or made worse by work each year.  In 2014/15 464,000 working days were lost due to work-related lung problems and  15% of COPD cases are the result of workplace exposure to dust and chemicals. Workers with fewer skills and qualifications are more likely to be exposed to such hazards.

A huge awareness campaign is needed. One in five people in the UK are unable to name any symptoms of lung cancer, for example.

This could be the reason why lung cancer tends to be diagnosed in A&E, along with many other lung conditions. Diagnosing lung disease early makes it more treatable. But, if you think you are not at risk and you don’t know the symptoms to look out for such as a persistent cough or sudden breathlessness doing everyday tasks, it’s very likely that a visit to see a GP will be delayed.

Lung disease, alongside cancer and cardiovascular disease, is one of the biggest burdens on UK health services and is one of the UK’s big three killers.

Respiratory health must have a higher profile with the public and health professionals. Concerted national public health campaigns to tackle cancer, cardiovascular disease and mental health have transformed patient care in these areas. There is now an urgent need for a national plan and public campaign to improve respiratory outcomes and strengthen public awareness and understanding of lung disease.

The Taskforce for Lung Health has been established to do this and will develop a five-year plan for improving lung health in England.

Helping people to understand the realities of lung disease will be a big step in the right direction towards an end to stigma. It will also create a demand for better and faster care for people living with a lung condition.

Alison Cook

Alison Cook is the Director of Policy at the British Lung Foundation.

She previously worked as a broadcast journalist and programme editor for the BBC in news and current affairs for over 12 years, before starting a second career in strategic communications.

Alison worked for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) as Head of Press and managed public consultations and press coverage around saviour siblings, sex selection and human cloning before moving on to work in government as a policy communications advisor to Ministers, in both the Department of Health and Number 10.

Following that Alison became Director of External Affairs at the Royal College of Surgeons, setting up their communications and policy teams and steering the College through the Health and Social Care Act.

Her first role for a charity was as Director of External Affairs for Alzheimer’s Society.

Alison is a scientist by background. She completed a PhD in signals processing in the nervous system, looking at pain modulation and then a post doc in colour vision at University College London.

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