Press Release WHO/92HELP OUR CHILDREN BREATHE FIRST WORLD ASTHMA DAY LAUNCHED
7 December 1998
There are between 100 and 150 million people in the world, including many children, who do not take breathing for granted. For them it can be a life-and-death struggle against recurrent attacks of breathlessness and wheezing caused by asthma. Each year, around 180 000 of these sufferers lose the battle and die of the disease.
To highlight the plight of asthma sufferers and raise public and professional awareness about this condition, the international community today launched World Asthma Day. The Day will be marked each 11 December under different themes. "Help Our Children Breathe" was chosen for the first World Asthma Day to emphasize the high incidence and gravity of the disease in children throughout the world.
"Asthma is a serious condition that affects the lives of millions of people in both developed and developing countries. Since the 1960s, the number of asthmatics has been steadily rising," said WHO expert, Dr Nikolai Khaltaev.
Today, an estimated 8% of the Swiss population suffers from asthma as against only 2% some 25-30 years ago. In Western Europe as a whole, asthma cases have doubled in the last 10 years, according to the UCB Institute of Allergy in Belgium. In the United States the number of asthmatics has leapt by over 60% since the early 1980s and deaths have reached 5 000 a year.
"Asthma is not just a public health problem for the developed countries," Dr Khaltaev emphsized. "India, for example, has an estimated 15 to 20 million asthmatics. However, in the developing world, the incidence of asthma varies greatly: from over 50% among children in the Caroline Islands to virtually zero in Papua New Guinea," he said.
"The prevalence of asthma in children can be as high as 30% in certain populations," explained Professor Romain Pauwels, Chairman of the Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA). "In Australia, for example, one child in six under the age of 16 is affected today. Asthma is also the single most common chronic disease causing absence from school. Therefore, it can adversely affect the subsequent careers of the children concerned," he said.
According to Prof. Pauwels, a third of children with asthma experience a great deal of pain or discomfort. The disease can also affect their psychological development. In one study, nearly 41% of parents said that asthma caused their children to feel self-pity. These children were also found to have poor self-esteem as well as poor relationships with their peers.
One of the goals of World Asthma Day is to inform people about the best methods for diagnosis of the disease and to promote modern treatment of asthma with anti-inflammatory drugs alongside the widely used bronchodilators. (These, when inhaled, dilate the bronchial tubes and make breathing easier). Although this treatment is more expensive, it reduces the number of hospital admissions and days lost from work or school and is more economical overall.
In marking World Asthma Day, efforts made by researchers to understand the causes of the ever-increasing prevalence of the disease will be highlighted. Significant risk factors that heighten the chance of developing asthma include genetic predisposition, indoor and outdoor allergens, smoking, low birth weight, air pollution and occupational sensitizers, as well as certain drugs and respiratory infection. Strong emotions, physical exercise and even the weather can exacerbate the condition.
Urbanization appears to be correlated with an increase in asthma incidence. The nature of the risk is unclear because studies have not taken into account indoor allergens.
Experts are struggling to understand why rates worldwide are, on average, rising by 50% every decade. They are baffled by isolated, unexplained incidents. In June 1994 in London, UK, 640 people were rushed to emergency departments in the throes of full-blown asthma attacks. They suffered from allergies such as hay fever but had never had asthma before. A similar incident occurred in Melbourne, Australia. Many experts have blamed climatic conditions such as thunderstorms, which break up pollen grains, releasing starch granules that trigger attacks.
World Asthma Day is co-sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), the American Thoracic Society (ATS), the European Academy of Allergology and Clinical Immunology (EAACI), the Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA), the European Respiratory Society (ERS), the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (IUATLD) and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in the USA.
To involve the public and relevant national authorities in the effective management of asthma, this group is working with Ministries of Health as well as with over 50 other organisations spread across the five continents.
For further information, journalists can contact Igor Rozov, Health Communications and Public Relations, WHO, Geneva. Telephone (4122) 791 25 32. Fax (4122) 791 48 58. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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