(November 2008) Millions of adults worldwide struggle with chronic respiratory diseases that sap their energy and can lead to their deaths. In 2007, an estimated 210 million people suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—including emphysema and chronic bronchitis; 3 million died from COPD that year. The World Health Organization warns that COPDs and other chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma, will increase 30 percent in the next 10 years if urgent actions are not taken.

What can reduce the suffering and deaths from COPD? There is no cure. Medicines can reduce the symptoms; home oxygen treatment can extend the lives of people with advanced cases. But these treatments are not available to most people in developing countries, where 90 percent of COPD deaths occur.

Public health experts instead focus on preventing new cases by eliminating the causes: tobacco smoke, indoor smoke from cooking, outdoor air pollution, and occupational exposure (for example to silica, asbestos, or coal). These experts detailed proven strategies for reducing smoking and promising policies to reduce indoor and outdoor air pollution in the 2nd edition of the Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries. The means for reducing COPDs exist, but they require political will and resources to carry them out.

The issues and proposed solutions related to the growing worldwide problem of chronic respiratory diseases are outlined in "Breathing Easier: Preventing Chronic Respiratory Diseases in Adults," one of a series of fact sheets produced as part of the Disease Control Priorities Project.


Mary Mederios Kent is senior demographic editor at PRB.