Smokers warned of risks of little-known killer

Deaths from the condition are set to rocket in the next 20 years, which will make it the third leading cause of death in the world.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is on the rise and it is a condition that many smokers are unfamiliar with. Pawan Singh / The National
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Emily Cleland

Abu Dhabi // A little-known but deadly disease kills twice as many people worldwide as diabetes – and smokers in the UAE are at risk.

Most tobacco users are aware their habit increases the threat of potentially fatal medical conditions such as cancer and heart problems.

But few know of the dangers of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Deaths from this deadly respiratory condition are set to soar over the next 20 years, making it the third leading cause of deaths in the world, the World Health Organisation has warned.

That is unless urgent action is taken to reduce risk factors, especially tobacco use and air pollution, it said.

Tobacco smoke is the primary cause of COPD – an umbrella term for chronic lung diseases that cause limitations in airflow – but it is still not on the radar of many smokers.

“Smokers, usually, they visit the doctor to see whether they have heart problems or not, or they have cancer or not. They are totally, absolutely clueless about COPD,” said Dr Bassam Mahboub, head of the Emirates Respiratory Society.

By the time patients seek treatment it is usually late and they have already lost 50 per cent of their lung function, he said.

“If you do not treat this disease early you end up with respiratory failure, where the lungs are not working and then you need oxygen,” he warned.

COPD mainly affects smokers over the age of 40. It presents as shortness of breath or a cough on a regular basis.

Non-smokers are not immune to the condition. Those who inhale other kinds of smoke for a long time, such as industrial workers or people who used to cook using wood or biomass fuels, are also at risk, said Dr Mahboub, a consultant in respiratory medicine. Passive smoking is also a risk factor.

The condition affects a person’s quality of life.

“What we know is that the patient who gets this disease, who is not treated early, the amount of shortness of breath will limit all their life activities,” said Dr Mahboub, an Emirati.

“They cannot do their usual daily life activities. They cannot do their social activities. They are limited and grounded by the nature of the shortness of breath they have and they end up having a lot of other diseases.”

Sufferers are more likely to get heart disease, depression and osteoporosis, he said.

About 3.7 per cent of the UAE population suffers from COPD, according to a 2011 study by Zayed Military Hospital, Dr Mahboub said. The survey has not yet been replicated to see if the numbers are increasing but experts believe they are.

“We are noticing more people coming with these symptoms and more people are smoking, especially the young population, so we expect that, if we repeat this study in a few years, the number will be higher,” said Dr Mahboub.

COPD cannot be cured but medication can slow the progress of the disease and ease symptoms, resulting in a better quality of life.

“I would advise everybody who smokes to stop smoking but, if they smoke and they have reached the age of 40, they should get themselves checked,” said Dr Mahboub.

Ischaemic heart disease – which results in blockages – stroke and lower-respiratory infections were the three leading causes of death in the world in 2011, according to the WHO, with COPD fourth.

COPD killed 3 million people in 2011, more than double the 1.4m who died from diabetes that year, WHO figures show.

COPD can progress to be a systemic disease, said Dr Saicharan Bodi, a specialist in respiratory medicine at Abu Dhabi’s Burjeel Hospital.

“That means it’s not confined to one part of the body, it’s all over the body,” he said.

“If a patient has COPD for more than 10 to 15 years there is evidence to say there are a lot of inflammatory processes going on which affect the whole body – the heart in particular.”

If someone has a frequent respiratory infection during childhood, they are at more risk of developing COPD at a later age, Dr Bodi said.

More effective diagnosis methods are one reason behind a global rise in cases, he said, another being an increase in smoking, although the habit is reducing in some developed countries.

Studies are being conducted into whether burning biomass fuels and environmental pollution play their part in an increase, Dr Bodi said.

“It’s a very unpleasant disease and the mortality is very high,” he added.