Leaders: Asthma treatment | Elena Baltacha

The Royal College found prescribing mistakes in nearly half of asthma death cases. Picture: Getty
The Royal College found prescribing mistakes in nearly half of asthma death cases. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

TO NON-sufferers, an asthmatic might be somebody who just suffers a bit of breathing difficulty fixable with a quick puff of an inhaler. In fact, three people die every day in Britain because of asthma and someone suffers a life-threatening attack every ten seconds.

These are sobering facts, but not quite so worrying as the findings of a Royal College of Physicians report that doctors and sufferers alike are not recognising the problems that asthma can cause. As a result, Britain has one of the highest asthma mortality rates in Europe.

Plainly, something has gone badly wrong. The Royal College found prescribing mistakes in nearly half of asthma death cases and that care of the condition could have been better in four of every five cases.

Fixing this has to begin with the physician. The internet enables people to learn about how to manage ailments, including chronic conditions. But variations in diseases mean that in most cases there is still no substitute for being examined by a doctor who can tailor a prescribed course of treatment to the individual sufferer.

That ought to be true of asthma, but the Royal College’s diagnosis is that it isn’t. As most people will believe their doctor’s guidance, the prime location for the problems with asthma has to be in the surgery.

One pin-pointed problem is that asthma deaths are often preceded by excessive use of an inhaler. A rise in repeat prescriptions, says the Royal College, is a clear flag that something has gone awry. GPs should be able to spot that and call in the patient before things go terminally wrong.

Even in hospital where there are specialist doctors, treatment is not right. Again, half of those who died were found to have been treated as mild or moderate cases when in fact they were seriously ill. Many who died had also been treated for a serious attack four weeks before their death, indicating that their condition was more serious than had been realised

If better systems of preventative detection and better education of doctors is the first step, better education of sufferers and their families is the second. They too often fail to realise that an attack may kill them. Calling for an ambulance or taking an attack sufferer to hospital occurs too infrequently.

Even parents of asthmatic children do not understand the need to oversee their child’s use of an inhaler. Use of them at school or while out playing is common, but do many of these child users really know how to use them properly?

Deaths from heart attacks have been reduced not just because of improved drugs and better diet and exercise regimes but also by a wider understanding of what upper body pains may signify and the need to get paramedic or hospital attention as quickly as possible. A similar programme for asthma is urgently needed.

Baltacha’s life an inspiration

‘I HAVE this image of ‘Battling Bally’ giving her all on court in every match,” said Jo Durie, a former British No.1 women’s tennis player, of Elena Baltacha, who rose to equal heights in the sport.

Many will have been familiar with that public battling quality, but few realised her private life was an even greater struggle against chronic illness, a fight which has now sadly ended at the age of 30.

Although only ten of those years were spent in Scotland, she endeared herself to Scots by making the country where she spent her formative years learning her sport, in Perth and Paisley, the one she represented in national team competitions.

To play professional tennis is to put body and mind to the utmost all-round test – athleticism, agility, precision, endurance, and quickness of thought are subject to equal demands – in a manner which, arguably, no other sport does.

To carry on subjecting oneself to that punishing regime for ten years after learning of a chronic liver disease which will entail bouts of debilitating illness and medication tells of a very determined and dedicated person. Her death is immensely sad, but we suspect that she would rather it were inspirational. Just as her playing inspired many to take up tennis, so her private life can inspire those with chronic conditions that long-term illness is not necessarily something you 
succumb to.

Elena lived with her condition, did not let it dominate her and constantly strove to be all she could be in her chosen career. And she rose to heights that many might dream of but never reach. She gave her all, on court and off it, and that’s inspirational.