COL Asthma rate in kids steady

Report welcome news to researchers, physicians

Respiratory health experts received some good news recently when the federal Centers for Disease Control reported the number of children suffering from asthma appears to have leveled off.

The report showed that while the asthma rate is still alarmingly high -- up to 5.4 percent of all U.S. kids suffer from the ailment -- the rate appears to have remained steady since 1997, after spiraling higher and higher in the 1980s and early '90s.

This report should come as welcome news to researchers, physicians and others who for decades have been attempting to pinpoint the cause and fine-tune treatment of this vexing health problem.

For at least the last two decades, health experts have to have felt as though they were swimming against the tide where asthma was concerned. A 2000 U.S. Health and Human Services report established that from 1980 to 1996 the number of Americans suffering from asthma doubled.


"Reasons for these increasing rates are unclear," former HHS Director Donna Shalala wrote in the prologue to the report. "Yet even if rates were to stop increasing, asthma would remain an enormous public health problem. Not only does it keep children in fear and pain -- it keeps them out of school. In every classroom with 30 children, there are likely to be at least two with asthma."

In May of 2000, Shalala called for a special asthma initiative to assess current efforts to combat the disease and develop priorities for the future. That initiative is under way, but there is still much to be done.

To medical experts, asthma -- whose victims periodically suffer from wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing and tightness in the chest -- remains largely a mystery. They still don't know what causes it, and they still don't know why prevalence of the disease among minorities is much higher than it is in the rest of the population. In 1999, the rates among black children was 74 per 1,000, compared with 50 per 1,000 among whites.

Overall, about 15 million people have asthma, according to the CDC, and about 6 million more say they have suffered from the ailment at some point in the past. Asthma kills about 5,000 people annually and results in about a half-million hospitalizations each year. Add to that the expensive inhalers and other medication sufferers are reliant upon and you've got a health problem in this country that results in an annual economic hit totaling $11 billion.

Those numbers are way too high. And the fact that the disease has only over the last 20 years increased in incidence to what Shalala called "epidemic" proportions, suggests there has been some profound change in our environment to feed the disease. For example, some researchers believe air pollution causes asthma, while others believe it only worsens the symptoms.

So, while the recent CDC report contains some encouraging news, it also indicates the asthma epidemic is a long way from being stopped. It is a problem that remains a worthy target for federal and private research dollars.

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