UK has higher death rate from respiratory illness than rest of EU

Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Death rates from respiratory illnesses like asthma and flu are higher in the UK than 14 similar countries in Europe, in the last 30 years with authors of a study suggesting pollution may be a factor.

Respiratory illnesses such as obstructive lung conditions like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and infections like pneumonia are common causes of mortality, but death rates can be reduced through healthcare interventions. Death rates have been coming down in all countries, and the authors of the study in the British Medical Journal wanted to look at whether the gap between the UK and similar countries, particularly those in the EU had closed.

In the UK, deaths fell from 151 to 89 per 100,000 in men and changed from 67 to 68 per 100,000 in women. In comparison other countries, death rates fell from 108 to 69 per 100,000 in men and changed from 35 to 37 per 100,000 in women.

The research team, led by Justin Salciccioli at Harvard Medical School, extracted data on death rates for respiratory illnesses from the World Health Organisation for the countries of interest. UK data were compared with EU member states before May 2004 and data from Australia, Canada, US, and Norway. Between 1985 and 2015 death rates from respiratory conditions decreased for men and remained static for women in both the UK and the comparison countries.

However, in the UK, death rates were higher than in the other countries for all respiratory conditions assessed except for lung cancer. These included influenza, pneumonia and obstructive diseases such as COPD, asthma and bronchiectasis (where the airways of the lungs become abnormally widened).

Previously higher UK death rates from respiratory conditions have been attributed to higher smoking rates, but smoking levels have decreased since the 1970s. The researchers emphasise this is an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, but say pollution may be a factor as the UK has a higher rate of deaths attributable to household and ambient air pollution than most of the comparator countries. Further studies are required to look at how differences in the healthcare system and behaviour differences of patients with respiratory diseases might impact on death rates, they add.

“The difference in mortality between UK and other similar nations does not exist for other chronic medical conditions,” they conclude.