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Are we seeing the peak in mesothelioma death rates?

Malignant pleural mesothelioma is a particularly aggressive form of cancer that affects the membranes of the lungs and chest wall. Often diagnosed at an advanced stage it generally has a very poor prognosis, leaving sufferers with difficulty breathing, fatigue, weight loss and a cough.

Doctors have previously warned that death rates from mesothelioma will not peak until the middle to the end of this decade, but the 2013 figures are already high at 2,538. Health and Safety Executive statistics show that the majority of victims are men, and predict those who previously worked in construction are now the group most at risk.

Extensive incubation time for the disease to take hold

It’s not unusual for several decades to pass before a victim starts to experience discomfort, and incubation times of 60 years have been known. The likelihood of an increase in mesothelioma deaths has been described as a ‘time bomb,’ due to a combination of this long latency period and the extensive use of asbestos during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Construction and shipbuilding workers are most likely to have been exposed to asbestos at some time during their working life, and with little or no protection from the dust and fibres, the likelihood of some form of asbestos-related disease developing is high.

During the time between asbestos exposure and diagnosis, asbestos fibres will have lodged within the lungs, and as they cannot be broken down, made their way to the pleural membrane where disease is set up.

Brown and blue asbestos said to be the most dangerous

Amosite, or brown asbestos, has long sharp fibres that are easily broken off and therefore more likely to be inhaled. With its heat resistant capacity, amosite was often used as thermal insulation, and to protect against fire.

The most dangerous form of asbestos is said to be crocidolite, or blue asbestos, however, and is characterised by long rod-like fibres that are said to be the strongest type. This form of asbestos was widely used in the building industry, within partition walling, as loft and floor insulation, and sprayed coatings.

Ongoing research and clinical trials

Mesothelioma is currently incurable, although laboratory testing of new drugs is ongoing in the hope that sufferers’ survival time will be extended following chemotherapy.

A common prognosis is between one and three years, with those diagnosed early having a better chance of successfully responding to chemotherapy treatment. Mesothelioma UK provides the funding for specialist mesothelioma nurses in the NHS, and for ongoing research into the disease.

Government funding of £5 million has also been earmarked for a national mesothelioma research centre in the UK. Asbestos campaigner, Lord Alton, expressed his hope for the future:

“There are possibilities that are opening up and the exciting chance to create a global ‘hub-and-spoke’ national mesothelioma research institute. The British Lung Foundation has been able to instigate research projects which have opened up extraordinary possibilities. By working with researchers in other areas of therapy, it has gained new expertise and insights.”