A “cavalier” attitude towards asthma is putting children at risk, says a health expert, on the back of data revealing one in seven Kiwi kids has the illness.
Through the central North Island, the disease has an even firmer hold, according to a recent report by researchers from Otago University in Wellington that has baffled academics.
Close to one in four Whanganui children are medicated for asthma, one in five in Gisborne, Taranaki and Wairarapa, and one in every six in the Hutt Valley.
“I think because asthma is so common, people have become a bit cavalier about it,” Jim Reid, deputy dean of the Dunedin School of Medicine, said.
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“It seems like every kid on the block has it, so it tends to get minimised, but last year 70 people died from asthma.”
The report was commissioned by the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation New Zealand in an effort to better understand the burden of respiratory illness of New Zealand.
Author Lucy Telfar-Barnard, from the University of Otago in Wellington, said air quality levels, overcrowding and housing quality are all contributing factors to asthma. Maori and Pasifika are also at greater risk.
But she and Reid were both at a loss to explain why the rates spiked across central New Zealand.
“Northland I can understand, with it’s big ethnic population. But I don’t quite understand what’s happening in Taranaki. I don’t understand why you’ve got that prevalence in the Hutt,” Reid said.
Telfar-Barnard added: “There’s no evidence that housing quality in the Hutt is more terrible than the rest of the country, although household crowding does look a bit high.
“All we can do is continue to look for measures to improve conditions, so people don’t develop asthma in the first place.”
Treatments for asthma had not radically changed since the 2000s, Reid said, and there were a small number of asthmatics whose symptoms could not be controlled.
Reid pointed to the case of Ethan Kowalewski, a 10-year-old who suffered a massive asthma attack in Hawera on December 18, and died in his mother’s arms two days later in Starship Hospital in Auckland.
Ethan’s mother, Rachel, handed her son his inhaler and raced him to hospital in December, when he began experiencing an attack, but doctors could not save him.
“But provided people take their medication,” Reid said, “I think a great majority of those 70 deaths would have been able to be prevented.”
Unlike the Kowalewski family, many asthma sufferers simply did not seek help, and might ignore their own and their children’s symptoms, he said.
“There is still a bit of a stigma around asthma treatment in this country, and it’s unfortunate, because there is pretty good evidence that if children are appropriately treated, then their chances of recovering from the disease are higher.
“You really need to have an understanding of how severe it is.
“I’ve been asking adults to rate their asthma, and a lot of people will say it’s excellent. Then they say they’re using their inhaler seven or eight times a day.”
Telfar-Barnard calculated the economic costs of childhood asthma were $58.3 million in 2013.