Averil seconded a Seanad motion today, proposed by her Independent colleague Senator mary Ann O’Brien, calling for greater support for people with asthma. Averil’s speech on the motion is below.

Senator Averil Power: “I second the motion. I thank my Independent colleague, Senator Mary Ann O’Brien, for tabling this important motion. The statistics she read into the record are stark indeed. Two figures struck me in particular. First, every 26 minutes someone visits an accident and emergency department due to asthma. Second, someone dies every week because of asthma, yet 90% of these deaths are preventable. That is frightening. It means that every year we have approximately 50 people dying but 45 of them need not have died. It is a great loss to their families and a sad indictment of our position in respect of this chronic condition.

Asthma is a manageable condition. With the right medication and proper management procedures there is no reason why someone should end up having an acute attack, let alone end up in an accident and emergency department or with fatal consequences.Many successful athletes have asthma, including David Beckham, Ronan O’Gara and many GAA stars. The Asthma Society of Ireland has worked with GAA stars to promote awareness of the fact that having asthma does not mean a person cannot exercise. Even if one has exercise-induced asthma, there are ways of controlling it to enable exercise and help one to stay fit and look after one’s health. Having asthma does not need to hold people back and yet, as Senator Mary Ann O’Brien has said, 60% of people who have asthma do not have their condition under control. I believe there are two main reasons for that. One reason is under-developed primary care and a lack of education, and another reason is the cost of medication.

With regard to education, many asthma sufferers simply do know how to handle their condition properly using breathing techniques and in other ways that do not necessarily involve medication but that need to be taught. I welcome the emphasis on asthma management under the programme of free GP care for children under six years of age, and I think it is good to start with young people. Many people develop asthma while in their teens, so there is a need to help in that age group also. I developed asthma in my teens. I had my first asthma attack at a PE class in school. I had no idea what was wrong with me. All I knew was that I could not breathe and it was incredibly frightening. A girl in my class handed me an inhaler and told me to take it. I wondered what it was, but it worked. I understand there are problems in some schools around the sharing of medication. There is much bureaucracy and fear about taking medicines while in school and the possibility of someone taking the wrong medicine. If that classmate had not handed me the inhaler I do not know what state I would have ended up in.

The cost of medication is the other big issue for people. Asthma medication in shockingly expensive in Ireland. I take a preventative inhaler called Seretide, which works extraordinarily well. I exercise: I box, I run and I do all kinds of sport. I can run on a treadmill for 20 to 30 minutes without taking any reliever inhaler because my preventative inhaler is so good. However, it costs €80 per month. When I was in college I could not afford it. On four or five occasions while I was in college I ended up in the accident and emergency department on nebulisers and had to stay in hospital overnight with frightening asthma attacks because I could not afford the inhaler. There are costs to the health service because of that, let alone the cost to the individual of that frightening experience. There is a cost to the health service of having people ending up in accident and emergency who, if they were getting proper medication, would not be there. It should focus all our minds on what needs to be done.

Asthma is a chronic condition and I believe that people who have asthma should be entitled to participate in the long-term illness scheme, just as those with epilepsy or other long-term chronic conditions are entitled to the scheme. Asthma is a lifelong condition and, as with diabetes or epilepsy, it is a life threatening condition. It should be covered by the long-term illness scheme. More needs to be done to bring down the cost of the medication. I know I am not unusual when I try to stockpile medication while I am away to avoid having to buy my inhalers in Ireland. I bought my inhaler for €38 in Greece last year. In Ireland that inhaler costs me €80, and while I know this is an ongoing issue with the pharmaceutical industry and the Government says it is trying to tackle it, a lot more needs to be done. There is no justification for these exorbitant prices.

With regard to education, the Asthma Society of Ireland has done important work with schools and has provided education packs for schools, which is crucial. Many young people will not realise they have asthma until they have an attack in a PE class or elsewhere. It is important that teachers are equipped and that they know how to react without panic if a person has an attack. The legislation is changing in relation to the use of EpiPens for people with nut allergies. Will the Minister of State confirm whether that is also the case for inhalers? I understand this caused concern in schools due to fears of litigation, but I believe it is important that a person should be able to get an inhaler without a refusal.

I will now turn the issue of GPs and the training for people with asthma to manage their condition. Many GPs are so busy. For example, in my own area of north Dublin we have the lowest rate in the country of GPs per head of population, with one GP for 3,500 people; the national average is one GP for 2,500. If a person goes to visit a GP in north Dublin there is a trail of patients outside. The GPs do not have the time they need to actually work with people to help them manage their conditions. I appreciate that the Minister is doing that with the free GP care for those under six years of age, but this is also important across the general population. The Asthma Society of Ireland has shown that when GPs in Finland engaged in a programme to help people manage their conditions and showed them how to use a peak flow meter properly, there was a 90% reduction in deaths and an 85% reduction in hospital admissions. Education programmes are important, along with managing the costs of medications.

I thank Senator O’Brien for tabling this motion. It is an issue that is important to me as an asthma sufferer. It is quite shocking that Ireland has the fourth highest rate of asthma in the world, and the more we can do to tackle it – by managing people’s conditions and also with clean air – the better. One of the best policy decisions made by any Government was the smoking ban, because I know that if anyone smokes anywhere near me I can feel it aggravating my chest. We need to do more to tackle pollution in the city, make the city more attractive for pedestrians and cyclists and promote a more healthy way of life that is good for everybody but especially for those of us who need clean air to survive and to avoid getting into problems.”


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