Mesothelioma in the UK: a growing fight

Source: NHE Jan/Feb 2019

The health impacts of asbestos in the UK can cast a much wider net than those in the construction and building sector. Liz Darlison, head of services at Mesothelioma UK, tells more on the growing fight against the disease.

The UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world, with more than 2,700 people diagnosed each year, and sadly this number continues to rise. There is currently no known cure for the disease and prognosis is poor with only around half of patients living past one year after diagnosis.

Inhaling asbestos fibres is the main cause of mesothelioma, and we identify exposure to asbestos in patients from all sectors of life including tradespeople, engineering, factory workers, construction, education, healthcare, and the armed forces.

Unfortunately, despite being banned in the UK in 1999, asbestos can still be found in many buildings including homes, schools, and hospitals. Many of these buildings were built in the second half of the last century when we were at the peak of importing asbestos into the country. The finding of the BBC inquiry that nine out of 10 NHS hospitals contain asbestos is therefore not surprising.

Mesothelioma UK now has a team of 24 nurse specialists across the UK. Each is based within an NHS hospital, supporting colleagues to ensure mesothelioma-specific expertise, care, and support is available at the front door of our wonderful NHS.  Through this team of nurses and their collective experience, it has become increasingly evident that mesothelioma, despite the occupational nature of the disease, is not, as previously widely believed, isolated to the construction industry, laggers, and power station workers. The nurses have identified that they are seeing individuals from all occupational backgrounds, and as such Mesothelioma UK is now developing specialist projects to explore this and address unique needs identified by these distinct patient groups. 

Armed Forces personnel is one distinct group the nurses are keen to develop a specialist insight into and bespoke services for.  Mesothelioma UK has launched a 'Supporting our Armed Forces' project which has developed a range of materials specifically for those at risk or diagnosed with mesothelioma as a consequence of their armed forces service.

The charity has engaged with existing armed forces groups and non-profit organisations, and has built a healthy partnership approach to address this national challenge. In addition, the charity is funding a comprehensive audit and research programme to quantify and characterise the extent and impact of mesothelioma amongst our armed forces. This will enable health education and care resources to be tailored appropriately.

Going forward, amongst other groups the nurses have identified as being visible within their caseloads, are healthcare workers and women in general. Studies to explore mesothelioma in these two groups have been designed, and, pending the availability of funding, will commence in 2019.  It is hoped the evidence generated will provide some transparency on the impact of asbestos in women, where there tends to be a lower index of suspicion for the disease based on their occupational history.

Similarly, the charity would like to shed some light on the incidence of mesothelioma amongst healthcare workers so that a measure can be taken to raise awareness and prevent avoidable exposure in the future. Sadly, very low levels of exposure can lead to a mesothelioma diagnosis. Asbestos is a national disaster and there's still much work to be done to eradicate the opportunities for exposure to it. Mesothelioma UK is working hard to raise awareness of this deadly disease, to fund research into new treatments, and to offer the best possible care for mesothelioma patients and their families.


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