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The Global Burden of Lung Disease

Respiratory diseases in the world

Respiratory disease causes an immense worldwide health burden.

It is estimated that 235 million people suffer from asthma, more than 200 million people have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), 65 million endure moderate-to-severe COPD, 1-6% of the adult population (more than 100 million people) experience sleep disordered breathing, 8.7 million people develop tuberculosis (TB) annually, millions live with pulmonary hypertension and more than 50 million people struggle with occupational lung diseases, totaling more than 1 billion persons suffering from chronic respiratory conditions.

  1. Lung diseases afflict people in every country and every socioeconomic group, but take the heaviest toll on the poor, the old, the young, and the weak.
  2. Deadly synergies exist between diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, influenza and asthma, COPD and lung cancer.
  3. Diseases once primarily found in industrialized countries, such as asthma, COPD, and lung cancer, are now major problems in low- and middle-income countries and threaten to overwhelm public health services.
  4. The cost of lung disease runs to billions of dollars each year in lost productivity and increased health care expenses–to say nothing of diminished and ruined lives.
  5. Yet public demand and political commitment remain inadequate to effect significant change.

The connection between breath and life is fundamental, yet the evidence shows that lung health is not high on the public health agenda:

  • At least 2 billion people are exposed to the toxic effects of biomass fuel consumption, 1 billion are exposed to outdoor air pollution and 1 billion are exposed to tobacco smoke. 
  • Each year, 4 million people die prematurely from chronic respiratory disease.
  • Infants and young children are particularly susceptible. Nine million children under 5 years of age die annually and lung diseases are the most common causes of these deaths. Pneumonia is the world’s leading killer of young children. Asthma is the most common chronic disease, affecting about 14% of children globally and rising.
  • COPD is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide and the numbers are growing.
  • The most common lethal cancer in the world is lung cancer, which kills more than 1.4 million people each year, and the numbers are growing.
  • Respiratory tract infections caused by influenza kill 250,000-500,000 people and cost $71–167 billion US annually.
  • Respiratory infections are ranked as the greatest single contributor to the overall burden of disease in the world, as measured in disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) lost, which estimate the amount of active and productive life lost due to a condition. The DALY burden is composed of two measures: years of life lost (YLL), which is the potential years of life lost to the person through their premature death, and years lived with disability (YLD), to take into account the years of life with disability. DALY is calculated by summing the two: DALY=YLL+YLD. This measure is sometimes referred to as the burden of disease.

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Source: Respiratory Diseases in the World Realities of Today – Opportunities for Tomorrow, Forum of International Respiratory Societies, 2014


The Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS) is composed of the world’s leading international respiratory societies. The goal of the FIRS is to unify and enhance efforts to improve lung health throughout the world.

The American Thoracic Society is a founding member of FIRS.


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