Asthma Society criticises Programme for Government for failing to prioritise prevention of asthma deaths

16 Jun 2020
  • Asthma Society expresses concern that medically vulnerable are not sufficiently prioritised in Programme for Government
  • Programme for Government fails to include a definitive commitment on a nationwide smoky coal ban – Asthma Society

The Asthma Society of Ireland has criticised the new Programme for Government, released yesterday, for failing to prioritise the prevention of asthma deaths.

The organisation had urged the three parties to commit to a national review of asthma deaths in the Programme for Government, a recommendation supported by leading asthma specialists across the country.

Sarah O’Connor, CEO of the Asthma Society of Ireland, said: ”Although asthma can be easily managed for many people living with the disease, it can severely impede patients’ physical, mental and financial well-being and, without proper treatment, can – and at times does – prove fatal. Without thorough examination and analysis of gaps in care, people with asthma will continue to die avoidable deaths.”

Dr. Marcus Butler, respiratory consultant specialist in St. Vincent’s Hospital and the Society’s Medical Director said: “It has long been recognised that, while we do know that the vast majority of asthma deaths are preventable in Ireland, there is not sufficient data to precisely identify what is causing them. This leaves healthcare planners uninformed and patients at unnecessarily high risk. It is critical that the Minister for Health commits to conducting a comprehensive investigation into asthma deaths and to publishing a plan to drastically reduce asthma deaths in Ireland. The Asthma Society is genuinely concerned that unless we see a commitment in the Programme for Government, the review will be long-fingered again.”

The Asthma Society of Ireland has also expressed deep disappointment at the failure in the Programme for Government, to sufficiently prioritise those most medically vulnerable, given the lessons learned over recent months.

While the organisation welcomed the commitment in the document to rolling out the chronic disease management programme – an essential element of care for all those with chronic respiratory diseases and a crucial step in reducing avoidable asthma care costs to the state – the organisation had called on acting Health Minister Simon Harris and health spokespersons from Fianna Fáil and the Green Party to accelerate its roll out.

Sarah O’Connor, continued: “The HSE has acknowledged that care of patients with asthma remains fragmented and uncoordinated nationally. The Department of Health’s Secretary General Jim Breslin advised the Special Committee on COVID-19 Response that the acute phase of this crisis will definitely be measured in months and, most probably, years. We have been at pains to press home the fact that unencumbered access to asthma-trained primary care healthcare professionals will be critical to the effective protection of asthma patients during this prolonged period of exposure to COVID-19, especially as restrictions are eased.”

Sarah O’Connor, continued: “While other cohorts of the population may be able to re-adapt relatively easily to living their lives in Ireland without the current severe restrictions, people with respiratory illness face a future of greater uncertainty. It is imperative that their needs are considered and met, not only in the transition period as Ireland reopens, and also until such time as a vaccine is introduced for COVID-19, but ultimately in all health planning in preparation for a similar future pandemic. Those with long-term medical conditions which leave them particularly vulnerable to another outbreak must be prioritised to ensure optimal disease management to protect against infectious disease. Accelerating access to the Chronic Disease Management Programme and drastically reducing the cost of medications should be a priority for any government genuinely committed to protecting the most medically vulnerable at this time.”

The organisation commended assurances in the Programme for Government to expanded access to free flu vaccine and improve eHealth measures to further enhance patient care at a time of particular vulnerability.

Dr. Dermot Nolan, member of the Asthma Society’s Medical Advisory Group and Asthma Lead for the ICGP, said: “The Asthma Society has welcomed the decision to extend the availability of the flu vaccine to more people without charge. The cost of flu vaccine has been a barrier for many vulnerable patients in the past and the free vaccine will allow the families who are financially struggling to avail of it. Flu season is a time of greater risk to people with asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, as the virus can result in exacerbation of their existing disease and, sometimes, hospitalisation. We commend any move that reduces the spread of flu infection in the population, but this has become all the more pressing when asthma and COPD patient populations are also exposed to COVID-19 and experiencing high rates of admission to the ICU due to contracting the new virus.”

Sarah O’Connor, concluded: “One glaring omission in this Programme for Government is a definitive commitment to introducing a nationwide ban on smoky fuels. Air pollution has been linked to stroke, respiratory disease, lung cancer and heart attacks. The pollutants emitted from burning smoky fuels should be a matter of genuine public health concern to any right-thinking government. Current arrangements are not cost-effective, enforceable or fair. The Asthma Society will continue to push for an outright ban. We are heartened however to see renewed commitment to a national clean air strategy and would urge the new Minister to publish it within the first 100 days of government, so that policy-makers, civic society and members of the public can work together to transform the quality of our air for the good of all.”