Ireland has the third highest mortality rate from diseases of the respiratory system in the EU and lung cancer accounts for more than one third of such deaths.
Figures compiled by Eurostat show only near neighbours the UK, as well as Denmark, have higher rates. In the UK, deaths from respiratory disease accounted for more than one in five of all causes of death (20.3%) in 2012, while in Denmark the figure was 18.4% and in Ireland, 18.2%. Conversely, respiratory disease death rates in the Balkan States and Bulgaria were among the lowest in the EU, accounting for less than 8% of all causes of deaths — Latvia (5.8%), Lithuania (6.4%), Estonia (7.4%) and 7% in Bulgaria.
Lung cancer is the top respiratory killer disease in almost every EU country, with the exception of Portugal where pneumonia claims more lives (38.6% compared to lung cancer at 20.9%) and Greece. In Ireland, lung cancer accounts for 34% of total deaths from respiratory disease.
Dr Marcus Kennedy, a consultant respiratory physician with an interest in lung cancer, said Ireland was seeing a spike now largely due to smoking legacy issues but also because people are living longer and diagnoses rates have improved.
Smoking is the main cause of lung cancer deaths.
“Irish males started smoking after World War II and females took it up in the 60s and 70s. About half our parents’ generation smoked. Then in the 80s and 90s smoking levels started to come down. The likely reason it’s peaking now is the legacy of trends back then,” Dr Kennedy said.
Dr Kennedy, who is based at Cork University Hospital (CUH) and is chair of the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP), said the number of deaths from lung cancer was predicted to double in the next decade but was then likely to start to decrease, reflecting the decline in smoking towards the latter part of the 20th century.
The risk of dying from a disease of the respiratory system was higher for men than for women in all EU member states, except Denmark. This was mainly driven by the higher number of deaths from lung cancer among the male population.
The pattern of males being more at risk of death from respiratory disease also follows for Ireland, with 52% of these deaths among men and 48% for women.
Turkey had the highest percentage of asthma deaths at 3.2%, followed by Serbia (2.8%) and Finland and Estonia at 2.5% each. The highest respiratory death rates due to influenza were in Sweden (1.6%) Norway (1.3%) and France (1.1%).
Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, found that overall in the EU, deaths due to respiratory diseases represented 13.4% of all deaths in 2012. The actual number of people who died as a result of respiratory disease was 670,000 across the EU, including 2,756 men and 2,542 women in Ireland.
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