Disease registers and surveillance schemes are not necessarily designed to measure incidence and prevalence, but their data can provide useful epidemiological insights. Their main functions are the detection and identification of hazards so that further cases can be prevented, and to provide a database for research to improve our understanding of the determinants and consequences of disease. Occupational asthma probably accounts for only a small proportion of adult asthma, of the order of 2-6% in the UK. On the other hand, asthma is very common and so thousands of people in the UK and in other western countries have asthma as a result of their work. The frequency of the disease in less developed countries is unknown but is potentially very large. Information on incidence is patchy but from Finland, where ascertainment is most complete, there are approximately 140 per million working people affected each year, and even there disease in the self-employed is probably missed. Data for the UK are limited to cases seen by specialist physicians and the best estimate is that the annual incidence of such cases is about 50 per million. Through internal comparisons and analysis it is possible to judge the extent to which variation in ascertainment and reporting have affected the frequency of reported disease, but so far it has not been possible to measure the underestimation due to persons with work-related symptoms not seeking medical attention or not being referred to a specialist.
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