Aortic Dissection kills more people in the UK than Road Traffic Accidents

September 25, 2019


Aortic Dissection kills more people in the UK than Road Traffic Accidents

A patient-led campaign, Think Aorta, to highlight a lethal heart disease is welcomed by medical professionals, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and Government. A group of patients, relatives and senior doctors recently met Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, to ask for his help in tackling the national problem of Aortic Dissection, which kills more people in the UK each year than road traffic accidents [1]. The Secretary of State promised his support for the campaign and filmed a piece to camera to help mark Aortic Dissection Awareness Day UK on 19th September [2]. Aortic Dissection involves a tear in the aorta, the body’s largest artery, which carries blood from the heart to the brain, limbs and vital organs. This life-threatening condition affects approximately 4,000 people a year in the UK, only 1,200 of whom survive to be admitted to hospital [1,3].

Aortic Dissection is a medical emergency. Treatment is possible, but often involves lengthy and challenging surgery with the risk of death or serious complications such as stroke or paraplegia. The key to successful treatment is to have a CT scan quickly for an accurate diagnosis so the patient gets to the operating theatre as soon as possible. Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Aortic Dissection is a life-threatening condition, which is often difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can be non-specific or mimic those of more common conditions such as a heart attack. Emergency surgery is essential to save lives in most cases. Greater awareness amongst doctors and healthcare professionals – and rapid access to CT scans to diagnose the condition – are key to saving lives. High blood pressure is an important risk factor to be aware of, but more research is also necessary to understand why some people are more prone to Aortic Dissection so we can better prevent it occurring in the first place.” Think Aorta has highlighted the difficulty of diagnosing Aortic Dissection and has produced some excellent clinical guidance, with the support of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery.

The Think Aorta campaign is led by Catherine Fowler, who lost her father Tim Fleming to a misdiagnosed Aortic Dissection in 2015. “Dad was a fit, young 69-year old who collapsed while away from his family on a business trip” said Mrs Fowler. “He was taken to the Emergency Department by ambulance where, tragically, the system failed him. Although one of the first doctors he saw suspected Aortic Dissection, this was not written down or communicated and Dad was discharged from hospital with a diagnosis of gastritis. By the time he returned to the hospital and a CT scan found that he had an acute Aortic Dissection, it was too late for the cardiac surgeons to be able to save him.”

Mrs Fowler is also Vice-Chair of the national patient association Aortic Dissection Awareness UK & Ireland. With other patient leaders and senior clinicians, she recently met with Secretary of State Matt Hancock, who was shocked to learn that Aortic Dissection kills more people than road traffic accidents in the UK and has promised his support for the campaign. Chair of Aortic Dissection Awareness UK & Ireland, Gareth Owens, an Aortic Dissection survivor himself, said: “Government spends a lot of money and effort reducing road deaths and reporting them is mandatory, yet there is nothing being spent and no visibility being required for deaths from Aortic Dissection. This reflects the old thinking that Aortic Dissection is a fatal condition – it is thought there is little that can be done for the patient. With advances in modern medicine, that simply isn’t true any more. I am living proof that with fast diagnosis and appropriate surgical intervention, it is possible to do well after Aortic Dissection”. September 19th is global Aortic Dissection Awareness Day. 30 events took place in 20 countries around the world. The UK event was the largest, with 170 patients, relatives and healthcare professionals being hosted at an all-day conference by the British Heart Foundation Cardiovascular Sciences Research Centre at the University of Leicester. The aim of the event was to build on the awareness work done to date and take the next step in turning Aortic Dissection from a catastrophic emergency into a preventable disease. Prof. Gavin Murphy, BHF Chair of Cardiac Surgery at the University of Leicester, explains: “As a research centre, patient engagement is absolutely crucial to what we do. Aortic Dissection is a complex, multi-faceted disease and we need patients to work with us to develop and conduct the research projects that will make the biggest difference to them. I am delighted to have the opportunity to work with Aortic Dissection Awareness UK & Ireland. On Aortic Dissection Awareness Day UK, we hosted a unique collaboration with patients, with the aim of tackling, together, a real research challenge in the field of Aortic Dissection. Aortic Dissection is a genetic disease. We think that a targeted national screening programme for 1st and 2nd degree relatives of people who have already experienced an Aortic Dissection will enable us to identify those at risk and take preventative action. Here at Leicester, we are ideally placed to conduct the research that will produce the clinical evidence required for such a screening programme.”

On behalf of UK Aortic Dissection patients and their families, Mr. Owens has welcomed this development: “Think Aorta is focused on doing all we can to improve diagnosis and care of people who are currently having Aortic Dissections. We also need to look to the future and to do the research, so that in the longer-term we can turn Aortic Dissection into a preventable disease. Our understanding of the genetics of Aortic Dissection, imaging techniques and possible interventions is developing all the time. The BHF Cardiovascular Sciences Research Group at Leicester are leaders in this specialized field and we are delighted to be working with them for the benefit of patients.”

1. Reference data in the form of a poster showing the incidence, treatment and mortality
rates for aortic dissection in the UK, with sources, is enclosed.
2. The Secretary of State’s short video about the national issue of aortic dissection can
be found here:
3. There were 1,770 road deaths in the UK in 2018 [ONS].
4. Photos enclosed for your use, courtesy of Aortic Dissection Awareness UK & Ireland.
5. More information is available at the websites and and on Twitter: @AorticDissectUK and @ThinkAorta.

CONTACT: Catherine Fowler T: 07890 108055 E:

Picture: Catherine & Tim