Asthma now a national emergency
By medical writer BELINDA HICKMAN


ASTHMA was added yesterday to the list of Australia's six greatest health emergencies by State and Territory health ministers.

The move reflects the fact that one in four Australian primary schoolchildren are now affected by the disease, which is becoming more common and increasingly severe.

Federal Health Minister Michael Wooldridge said more than 2 million Australians had asthma, compared with 1.4 million 10 years ago. It was the most common reason for hospital admission among children, and one of the 10 most common reasons for Australians to see a general practitioner.

Announcing yesterday's decision, Dr Wooldridge said: "This is a big breakthrough. It means we're all going to work together to try to reduce the rate of asthma, which is good news."

National healthcare costs for asthma are put at more than $470 million.

"With Australia now holding the dubious record of having one of the highest rates of asthma in the world, this is clearly a debilitating and potentially life-threatening problem that requires immediate national attention," Dr Wooldridge said.

Asthma joins a list of five other disease groups that have been declared National Health Priority Areas: cardiovascular health, cancer control, injury prevention and control, mental health and diabetes mellitus.

Over the next year a comprehensive asthma report will be developed, forming a platform for national approaches to improve prevention, management and treatment of the disease.

Similar analyses on cancer and injury were delivered to the health ministers last year, and comprehensive reports on cardiovascular disease, mental health and diabetes were released yesterday.

It was also announced that a national depression action plan was under way to provide a framework for tackling the disorder at all levels.

The ministers also endorsed a national diabetes strategy to increase awareness, combat prevalence and reduce the severity of diabetes in the community.

The mental health report, which focuses on depression, finds that one in five Australians have a mental health problem. Young people, single or divorced Australians and those living alone were most at risk of suffering major depression.

The severity of the problem is expected to increase, with estimates suggesting it will be the second most pervasive health problem worldwide by 2020.

A report on diabetes shows that the number of Australian with the disease has doubled since the early 1980s, and that up to 400,000 people could suffer from it without knowing.

A report on cardiovascular disease shows it is Australia's leading fatal health problem, directly costing almost $4 billion a year. Four in five adults are at risk of developing heart disease.

The report also highlights problems in managing heart disease: too few patients receiving appropriate drug therapies or gaining access to specialist treatment and rehabilitation units; and a wide variability in access to surgical treatments.