Nearly 67 percent of people in China with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - or COPD - remain undiagnosed, let alone receiving treatment, according to a specialist in respiratory conditions.
Wang Chen, president of China-Japan Friendship Hospital and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said in an interview on Thursday that COPD is now the No 3 killer in China, after cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, and cancer.
COPD is a group of progressive life-threatening lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. China has nearly 87 million sufferers, according to official estimates.
"But awareness among the public and even medical professionals remains low, which leads to a poor detection rate and treatment," Wang said.
"Many patients are not aware of the condition until it's too late, when they develop serious symptoms like breathlessness," said Wang, who is also a lung specialist.
Without timely intervention, the prevalence of the disease will climb because of risk factors such as air pollution, an aging population and smoking, he warned.
Roughly 8.6 percent of China's population has the disease, which is more likely to hit the elderly, data from the National Health and Family Planning Commission show.
Worldwide, about 5 percent of all annual deaths are caused by COPD, which translates to at least 3 million deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Notably, more than 90 percent of COPD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.
Wang urged the Chinese government to pay more attention to chronic lung disease and come up with systematic interventions, as with other major chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension.
He suggested those over 40 suffering shortness of breath and chronic cough go for a breathing test called spirometry, which measures how much and how quickly a person can forcibly exhale air.
The disease cannot be cured but current treatments can help relieve symptoms, improve life quality and reduce the risk of death.
To enhance response and capacity at the grassroots level health institutions, Wang's hospital formed a nationwide alliance to curb COPD.
The alliance will standardize diagnosis and treatment across the country and facilitate big data research into the disease, he said.