Asbestos – the silent killer

By Philip Haynes

It affects around 1,800 people in the UK each year and kills within 18 months after diagnosis – yet little is really known about deadly disease  Mesothelioma.

Dubbed, ‘the silent killer’, Mesothelioma is a relatively rare form of cancer which is caused by unprotected exposure to asbestos fibres. The north of England is a particular hotspot for this deadly disease with an alarming number of new cases being reported each year.

It’s been known for a long time that asbestos is dangerous to our health. Many of the buildings containing the harmful substance have long since been destroyed, yet for many people subjected to exposure back in the 1950s and 60s the long term effects are only just being realised. Mesothelioma usually takes around 20 to 50 years to develop and once diagnosed death is inevitable.

Mesothelioma attacks the lining of the lungs and, less commonly, the lining of the abdomen or heart. So far there is no known treatment available to combat it as it reacts poorly to surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The most common exposure to asbestos is in the workplace although people who have lived near asbestos factories or in buildings where asbestos was installed are known to have developed the disease.

For many victims the symptoms can be extremely painful. Professor Nick Thatcher from Christie’s Hospital in Manchester is one of the country’s leading experts in asbestos related diseases.

He said: “The warning signs tend to be increasing breathlessness, often due to fluid outside the lungs, sometimes chest pain and very occasionally some other symptoms as well.”

The complex nature of the disease means that it does not matter if a large amount of asbestos is inhaled or just a minute speck, the long term health effects can be equally evastating. Because of the hibernation period, diagnosing the illness can prove difficult, “There is a long delay before the tumour becomes apparent so these problems cause difficulties in the diagnosis but we’re getting sharper and more aware of the disease particularly in the North West,” said Prof Thatcher.

On February 27 2009 the first Action Against Mesothelioma Day was launched to raise awareness of the killer disease. Organised in part by the British Lung Foundation the event aimed to offer support and compensation to victim’s families and also highlight the growing danger imposed by the industrial killer.

Much of the distress caused by the disease is down to the lack of support available. Many families feel that more can be done be the government to help bereaved relatives and also offer financial assistance in the form of compensation.

Tony Whitston, project worker for the Greater Manchester Asbestos Support Group, was behind the Manchester appeal held at Manchester Town Hall.

He said: “It took nearly four months to put together and we wrote to 400 people whose loved ones suffer from Mesothelioma. “We addressed the letter to the family because the prognosis period for the disease is so short you do not know if someone you’re writing is going to be alive by the time they receive the letter.”

National Mesothelioma Day is set to become a yearly event and with the number of cases rising it is likely to get bigger. Its ultimate aim is to trigger government support for victims and families.

Whitson said: “Only seven per cent of people in the North West have ever heard of Mesothelioma yet five people die from it every day. The government must address this and make sure people understand it and the dangers that asbestos still presents and prevent further deaths.”

Once diagnosed the speed at which the disease can kill is both alarming and distressing for its victims and their families. Olive Goodhead from Morecambe, whose husband Les died last year of the disease, spoke of the shock felt when her husband’s life was cruelly cut short in July after being diagnosed just two months earlier. 

“We were just blown away, absolutely devastated. It’s just a dreadful illness.” Les worked for a power station in the Midlands during the 60s, when health and safety regulations were much laxer. 

“It makes me so angry that more awareness was not made by his employer and the government,” said Olive.

Elaine Haskins’ husband, Ernie, worked for many years on the Manchester Ship Canal. It was whilst working there in the 1960s that Ernie was exposed to asbestos. He died last year, aged 65. “ We were devastated and in shock,” said Elaine. “It was like being given a death sentence.”

Drugs have recently been developed to treat the disease – but it could be eyars before they are available to sufferers. Professor Nick Thatcher explains: “ We have some new drugs and a new impetus to research and that is what Action Against Mesothelioma Day is all about. I can’t understand why our government can’t get rid of the layers and layers of red tape which prevent licensed drugs becoming available.”

With an ever increasing number of cases being reported today’s death toll is merely the tip of the iceberg. The number of people with Mesothelioma will go up within the next two decades and it is estimated the figure will plateau around 2050.

Until then Mesothelioma is not simply an historical problem, but a present one as well.

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