A recent bulletin published by the World Health Organization estimates that 92,252 people around the world died of mesothelioma in the 15-year period from 1994 through 2008. Two-thirds of those deaths have occurred since the year 2000 and the incidence of mesothelioma is on the rise, the report said. Mesothelioma is an aggressive and largely preventable form of cancer associated with breathing asbestos fibers.
A preponderance of the mesothelioma deaths analyzed by the WHO involved pleural mesothelioma, a malignant cancer of the lining of the lung and chest cavity. Pleural mesothelioma is seen far more often than peritoneal mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the abdomen caused by ingesting asbestos dust. Pericardial mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the heart, is rarer still.
Mesothelioma is slow growing and symptoms typically appear 30 years or longer after initial exposure to asbestos. Many mesothelioma sufferers are retired workers or veterans. The median survival after diagnosis is typically 9 to 12 months and the median age at death 70.
Of the 92,252 recorded mesothelioma deaths, the vast majority occurred in high income industrialized countries including the United States, the United Kingdom and countries in Western Europe, the report said. The countries with the highest cumulative mesothelioma deaths tended to be the countries that were the largest users of asbestos. They also are more diligent in recording mesothelioma deaths.
Underreporting is a common problem with rare diseases such as mesothelioma that are difficult to diagnose. The actual number of mesothelioma deaths is likely much higher, the researchers acknowledged. Some countries such as China, India, Thailand and the Russian Federation that are large users of asbestos did not provide mesothelioma death data to the World Health Organization.
The use of asbestos has been strictly limited in the United States since the late 1970s and it has been banned in many European nations. Still, many workers such as construction workers, electricians, plumbers and demolition workers face an occupational hazard of asbestos exposure in the workplace. The WHO said the burden of mesothelioma may be gradually shifting to developing countries that used asbestos more recently and those countries should prepare for an increase in the number of mesothelioma deaths in coming decades.