New data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that the Australian asthma death toll jumped in 2006, with an additional 84 deaths being recorded compared to 2005 data.
The total number of deaths attributed to asthma in Australia in 2006 was 402. The greatest increase in deaths occurred in the 70 plus age bracket, with 273 deaths recorded, compared with 191 in 2005.
This is an alarming trend that was identified by the National Asthma Council Australia in 2005 and one that it warns will only increase in line with our ageing population unless health professionals, carers and older people themselves take the threat seriously.
"The increasing rate of asthma deaths amongst our ageing population was recognised by Australian experts in 2005 and a conference was held to determine what steps needed to be done to minimise asthma mortality in this older group," said Professor John Wilson, National Asthma Council Australia chairman.
"The National Asthma Council responded by publishing new guidelines for the management of asthma in the elderly in its Asthma Management Handbook 2006 . "It is important to note that these new statistics are actually more than one year old and we are experiencing a lag between the introduction of new guidelines and the availability of up to date data. There can also be confusion over the actual cause of death with asthma often co-existing with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease."
Prof Wilson points to smoking as a major contributing factor of lung disease in the 70 plus population and suggests that many deaths recorded as asthma may in fact be attributed to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
"It is well recognised that as many as 60 per cent of people with asthma are current or past smokers and are at risk of COPD – the older they are, the greater risk. "It is essential that the effect of smoking is recognised in this older high risk group and that the overlap between asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is understood," Prof Wilson said.
"These new figures reinforce the need for increased vigilance, particularly amongst health professionals and family carers responsible for the health and well-being of our elderly," he urged.
Over two million Australians have asthma – one of the highest rates in the world. Asthma deaths in Australia have dropped from a peak of 964 in 1989 to the latest toll of 402 in 2006.
Asthma cannot be cured – but it can be prevented.
(Source: National Asthma Council Australia: April 2008)