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National law firm Slater and Gordon is warning Australians suffering from respiratory symptoms who return a negative COVID test, to continue seeking medical treatment, especially if they have been exposed to asbestos or silica dust in the past, to rule out asbestosis, silicosis or mesothelioma.

Slater and Gordon Asbestos Practice Group Leader Joanne Wade said an expected spike in delayed diagnosis of asbestos and silicosis-related conditions following COVID lockdowns, could lead to delayed and less effective treatment for those suffering from these accelerated fatal illnesses.

“We are urging people suffering from shortness of breath, a persistent cough and unexplained weight loss, who are feeling generally unwell or lethargic, to see their GP to rule out any fluid on their lungs, and to have a chest X-ray or CT scan where recommended by their GP,” Ms Wade said.

“Lockdowns Australia-wide may be delaying people struggling with their breathing to see their GP when the advice has been to stay home. Get a COVID test, and if negative, see your GP. Don’t delay. Don’t carry on without taking your health issue any further.

“People with these symptoms may fear being turned away or discouraged from seeing their GP due to their respiratory issues being similar to COVID, potentially preventing them from being diagnosed with other illnesses for some time.”

Ms Wade said while a person may have been exposed to asbestos at some point in their lifetime, they may not realise their immediate illness could be related to that exposure.

“In some cases, people may not remember initially where they have been exposed to asbestos many years earlier. It is not until they are diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease that they consider their work and life history and where they may have been exposed while working in a certain industry or during a home renovation. They are sometimes prescribed antibiotics by their GP and return again after the symptoms do not improve or get worse, before they are sent for a chest scan,” Ms Wade said.

“People who are unwell are currently relying on telehealth services. If you have fluid on the lungs, a doctor can’t necessarily hear that or examine the issue properly via telehealth.”

Ms Wade is anticipating a rush of people seeking urgent treatment related to asbestos exposure from decades ago, in the coming months. She said there was a possibility their families or loved ones may miss out on the opportunity to access appropriate support and treatment for their symptoms, or miss out on starting treatment earlier to stabilise the disease. They may miss out on legal entitlements, such as damages for pain and suffering, if they were to pass away suddenly, due to delayed diagnosis, if no legal proceedings had commenced in their lifetime, she said.

“The danger is, when the lockdown lifts that this group of people may start going to doctors for advice and they find their condition has become urgent and critical. Their body may not be able to withstand the treatment as effectively if the asbestos-related condition has progressed rapidly,” Ms Wade said.

“We are talking about a cohort of people who are generally older and don’t necessarily have the ability to participate in video calls and may be putting off seeking treatment until they can do so in person. These illnesses accelerate quickly, and they are deadly so we want to encourage people with symptoms to seek medical advice as soon as possible.

“Don’t ignore respiratory symptoms or avoid treatment during lockdown.”

Media Contact Anna Chisholm (03) 9602 8683/ 0437 801 093