An international database has been launched at the University of Edinburgh in order to benefit researchers studying high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE), a life-threatening condition that occurs at high altitude.
The disease causes fluid to build up in the lungs, and can affect people of all age groups and fitness levels living at a height as low as 2,500 metres. There is no technique available at the moment through which people at the risk of being afflicted by the disease can be predicted, although several studies have suggested a genetic link.
"There is no way of predicting who is likely to suffer from HAPE, as it can affect anyone even if you are young, healthy and active. Because it occurs from 2,500 metres, it can affect skiers as well as mountaineers. Treatment options are very limited and sufferers need to descend from high altitude and see a doctor straight away," said Dr Kenneth Baillie, co-ordinator of the database and a researcher at the University of Edinburgh.
The database is being run in collaboration with researchers from America, Austria, Bolivia, and Britain. It aims at encouraging registration from previous sufferers of HAPE so as to facilitate research that could potentially identify people susceptible to the condition.
Genetic studies using the database may also provide greater understanding of what happens in HAPE sufferers' lungs.
"A major problem is that sufferers may not know that they have HAPE until it is too late. Once the symptoms start to appear - which may include breathlessness at rest and blueness of the lips - sufferers may not realise the severity of the illness and the urgency of reducing altitude and seeking medical treatment. It may also be that sufferers are not in a position to go down a mountain in time, whether this is due to how ill they are, weather conditions or how high up they are," said Dr. Baillie.
"This all reinforces how important it is to find out who may be susceptible in advance so that they can either try to prevent the onset of the illness or not put themselves in a potentially life-threatening situation," added the researcher.
Researchers across the world will be able to use the database, although the details of individual members will be not be given out without their consent.
HAPE is the most common form of altitude sickness that can kill within hours if untreated. As the illness progresses, it can cause drowsiness and lack of coordination, leading to a coma and death.
The main treatment is descent, but this is often difficult because a sufferer may need to be carried for miles on a stretcher. Other treatments include breathing oxygen and two drugs, dexamethasone and nifepidine, which may not be available when somebody becomes ill.
Blood vessels inside the lungs constrict in response to low oxygen to such an extent that fluid is forced from the capillaries (narrow tubes through which blood cells pass), leading to flooding of the lung's air sacs.
Mean to predict people at the risk could help identify potential sufferers who need to take requisite precautions, such as climbing much more slowly or taking drugs to prevent the onset of the condition.