Ministers are being urged to roll out a better testing regime for one of the country’s biggest killers, with the most recent figures showing death rates for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease more than three times higher in some of the most deprived areas of the country.

More than 20,000 people a year in England die from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The most significant cause of COPD is smoking, but a significant proportion of cases are work-related, triggered by exposure to fumes, chemicals and dust at work.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that death rates from the disease are significantly higher in more deprived areas of the country including Wolverhampton, Rochdale and Blackpool. Death rates in Salford (82 per 100,000) are 3.9 times higher than in Bath (21 per 100,0000).

The NHS is rolling out targeted lung screening across England for people aged between 55 and 74 who are current or former smokers. The charity Asthma + Lung UK says the checks will identify many people who may have COPD, but there is no established protocol for them to be diagnosed and given appropriate treatment and support.

Dr Samantha Walker, interim chief executive at Asthma + Lung UK, said: “Once targeted lung health checks are fully rolled out, millions of people could be told they have an incurable lung disease like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but they won’t be given a firm diagnosis or signposted to the right support, which is simply unacceptable.

An X-ray of a patient’s lungs. Photograph: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

“What we need to see is a national referral pathway in place for those people who show signs of having other lung conditions as part of this screening process to ensure that people with all suspected lung conditions get the diagnosis and treatments that they deserve. We know that people with lung disease will live better, fuller lives with an earlier diagnosis.”

A survey by the charity published in 2022 found that nearly one in four people with COPD waited more than five years to be diagnosed. About one in eight waited more than 10 years for a diagnosis. There is no cure for COPD, but lifestyle changes and disease management can help slow its progression. A spirometry test which shows how well the lungs are working is used to diagnose COPD. An investigation last year by the BMJ, the medical journal, found that some of the most deprived areas of England had no or limited access for spirometry.

Katy Brown, 66, a former nursery nurse from Portishead, Somerset, said she had suffered from breathlessness since 2019, but had not been diagnosed with COPD until October last year. “It literally takes your breath away,” said Brown. “It’s like someone is sitting on your chest.”

She said that once diagnosed, people could benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation, which provides exercises and advice on managing the condition.

Felicity Payne, 67, a language teacher, from Eastbourne, said exercise played an important role in managing the condition, with regular mile-long swims part of her regime since her diagnosis in 2016. “I never thought I would be able to do that several years on [from the diagnosis],” she said. “It has been a lifeline.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are working to improve services for people with chronic conditions such as COPD so they can live longer, healthier lives.

“The Major Conditions Strategy will look at proposals for the improvement of health outcomes across the six groups of conditions that includes COPD responsible for over 60% of ill health and early death in England.”

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