In observance of World Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Day, 14 November, the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) is working to raise awareness of the impact of this preventable yet incurable disease, which is linked primarily to tobacco use.
In the Americas, 7 in 10 COPD deaths (71%) in people over 30 are linked to tobacco. At the global level, COPD claims a life every 10 seconds (3 million deaths annually). By 2030, the disease is expected to become the third-leading cause of death worldwide, according to WHO.
Tobacco smoke – for both active smokers and people exposed to secondhand smoke – is the leading cause of COPD. WHO estimates that in 2004, nearly 6 million people worldwide died from COPD and other tobacco-related causes. By 2030 this number is expected to grow to 8 million.
“Full implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [FCTC] by countries will help reduce the number of deaths from chronic diseases in general and from COPD in particular,” said Dr. Adriana Blanco, PAHO regional advisor on tobacco control. The FCTC is an international, legally binding treaty that includes such measures as the establishment of smoke-free environments; bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; increased taxes on tobacco; and graphic health warnings on tobacco product packaging.
While the leading risk factor for COPD in high- and medium-income countries is tobacco smoke, in low-income countries, exposure to indoor air pollution is the top risk factor.
A major contributor to COPD is the use of biomass fuels for cooking and heating homes. Nearly 3 billion people around the world use biomass fuels and coal as their main energy source. In these communities, indoor air pollution is a greater risk factor for COPD than smoking or outdoor air pollution.
In the Americas, countries with large rural populations tend to depend on the use of “dirty” fuels, such as biomass or coal. More than 50% of the populations of Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay use these fuels as their main energy source. In Guatemala, 30% of urban dwellers still burn firewood to cook, while 76.5% of Haiti’s urban population continues to cook with charcoal, according to 2009 data from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and WHO. Even in some more developed countries, a significant percentage of the population lacks access to clean fuels, including 16 million people in Mexico (14.9% of the population) and nearly 13 million in Brazil (6.7% of the population).
Other COPD risk factors include inhalation of particles and chemical substances in the workplace (vapors, irritating substances, and gases) and frequent respiratory infections during infancy.
COPD can be confirmed through a simple diagnostic technique called spirometry, which measures the amount and velocity of air inhaled and exhaled from the lungs. COPD’s most frequent symptoms are dyspnea (lack of air), abnormal expectoration, and chronic cough. As the disease worsens, daily activities such as climbing stairs or carrying a suitcase can become extremely difficult.
Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are among the conditions classified as COPD. Treatment can help slow their progression, but the disease tends to worsen over time; for this reason it is most commonly diagnosed in people over age 40. The disease affects men and women equally.
PAHO/WHO works for the prevention and control of chronic diseases, including COPD, seeking to raise awareness of the worldwide epidemic of chronic diseases; create healthier environments, especially for poor and disadvantaged populations; reduce risk factors for chronic diseases, such as tobacco consumption, unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity; and prevent premature deaths and disabilities.
World COPD Day is organized by the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) to promote greater understanding of the disease and better patient care around the world.
COPD data and statistics
- Globally, 64 million people live with COPD, according to 2004 WHO data.
- 3 million people die each year from COPD (data for 2005), accounting for 5% of global deaths (WHO).
- By 2030, COPD is expected to become the third-leading cause of death globally.
- In the Americas, 71% of COPD cases in people over 30 are due to tobacco.
- In the Americas, 22% of adults currently smoke some type of tobacco product (WHO 2010).
- 90% of COPD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.