Campaign to raise awareness of chronic lung problems stops in Pittsburgh

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Helping people understand the risks of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and finding people before they suffer the debilitating effects of COPD is the goal of a campaign that's driving into Pittsburgh this morning.

"They're raising awareness that COPD is serious," said Brian Carlin, an Allegheny General Hospital pulmonologist who is sharing his passion for the detection and management of chronic bronchitis and emphysema, both known as COPD.

"Almost half of the people who have COPD don't know it," Dr. Carlin said. "Twenty-four million Americans are believed to have it, but about 12 million of them are undiagnosed." COPD can also refer to damage caused by chronic asthmatic bronchitis. Damage to airways eventually interferes with the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs.

In contrast to stroke and heart disease, Dr. Carlin said, rates of death from COPD have been going up over the past 30 years, and the Pittsburgh area has one of the highest incidences in the country.

"It's our air, the age of our population, the exposures people had in the coal mines and the mills ... and smoking." Most cases are caused by long-term smoking, he said.

"If they're smokers, that's the biggest thing to target, to get them to stop smoking. The American Lung Association and the American Respiratory Alliance, many hospitals have programs to help them stop smoking. It's one of the most helpful things we can do."

On Saturday, Dr. Carlin joined racing and entertainment celebrities at Daytona International Speedway at the beginning of the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Then they split up, crossing the country, hitting 14 cities in a four-day race to screen at-risk people.

From 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. today, the screening campaign stops at Ross Park Mall, where Dr. Carlin will speak and retired pro football star Michael Strahan will talk about how COPD has affected his family. Nearby will be a blue, orange and white RV with the DRIVE4COPD sign.

Mr. Strahan, who is racing in memory of an uncle who had emphysema, is competing with four others to screen the most people in the campaign. Also in the race are Danica Patrick, NASCAR driver, leading the team in honor of her grandmother, who had emphysema; Jim Belushi, actor, racing for his father, who had chronic bronchitis, and his aunt, who has it; Bruce Jenner, Olympic gold medalist, for two of his wife's grandparents who had emphysema; and Patty Loveless, country music star, for her late sister who had emphysema.

"Getting screened can prevent more damage," Dr. Carlin said. "If it's detected early, you can prevent further damage from occurring. People with damage can be treated with inhaled medication and pulmonary education."

The DRIVE4COPD campaign is sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which makes medicines to treat COPD, and its partners, NASCAR, the American Lung Association and the COPD Foundation. The campaign aims to screen 1 million people for COPD in 2010.

COPD screening is also planned at future Major League Baseball, NFL football and country music events.

Dr. Carlin suggested if people can't attend today's screening, they can go to the website drive4copd.com and answer the five questions. Then they can take the results to their primary care professional, who can determine if they have COPD.

"What happens is, people think, 'Well I'm a smoker. I'm getting older. Therefore I should be short of breath, have a cough,'" Dr. Carlin said. But, he added, things can get better with treatment.

"With care, a lot of those things can improve. Things can improve significantly, and they can do more."

It wasn't easy at first, Dr. Carlin said, for one of his patients to deal with being diagnosed with COPD.

"Her husband said, 'My wife can't walk up all three flights of steps at our house without catching her breath.' His wife said she was in her 80s, just had hip surgery, but she was still singing in the choir. ... After we gave her a breathing test, we found she has moderate COPD. She hadn't smoked for 40 years and she ascribed all her symptoms to something else."


Jill Daly: jdaly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1596.


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