Study: High rate of Pittsburgh-area children don't get proper asthma treatment

2016-05-06 | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

May 06--A high rate of children with asthma, including a high proportion who are not getting proper treatment, was reported in a study released Thursday that looked at students in several elementary schools in and around Pittsburgh.

The study builds on previous studies that linked air pollution and asthma in children.

"I'm not surprised, but I'm disappointed in the numbers," said the study's lead author and investigator Deborah Gentile, physician and director of allergy and asthma clinical research for Allegheny Health Network. "I'm surprised we found as much uncontrolled asthma as we did. We have to reduce their triggers and get their asthma under control."

Among participants, those who were diagnosed with asthma by a doctor made up 28.7 percent, and another 11.7 percent were found at risk of developing asthma. Of those children with asthma, 45.4 percent were found to have uncontrolled asthma. Among environmental factors studied, poor air quality was linked with a five times higher rate of uncontrolled asthma.

Funded by The Heinz Endowments' Breathe Project, the pilot study enrolled 267 fifth-graders in Northgate, Allegheny Valley, Gateway and Woodland Hills school districts as well as the Environmental Charter School in Regent Square and Waldorf Elementary in Bloomfield. Heinz and AHN partner with an annual asthma summit for health professionals, held Thursday at the Marriott City Center, where the asthma in schools study results were announced.

The school superintendents asked to participate after hearing about the study, Dr. Gentile said, already suspecting high asthma rates in their schools because of nearby pollution sources, such as the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock in the Woodland Hills School District and Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island near Northgate School District.

Participation was voluntary and 50 percent of those eligible joined the study, which may make the numbers of sick children somewhat higher, Dr. Gentile said, but that would keep the prevalence of asthma among the children elevated, at about 20 percent. That's still higher than levels reported for 2013 for Allegheny County overall (14 percent), the state (10 percent) and the nation (9.4 percent).

Poor control of asthma, which leads to more missed school days and emergency room visits, has an impact on a child's learning and difficulties with education after high school, Dr. Gentile said, adding that it's in society's interest to have healthy, well-educated people to take on the jobs of the future.

The project was designed to accurately identify the prevalence of asthma and develop good methods for surveillance and tracking the disease, Dr. Gentile said. Districtwide screening is now being done in the Woodland Hills, Clairton and Northgate school districts. In the future, the project aims to identify what triggers exist in the environment, start interventions and influence policy.

All children in the study are exposed to outdoor air pollution, including small-particle pollution, a common asthma trigger. The region still ranks eighth in the country in small-particle pollution by the American Lung Association.

Next year, Dr. Gentile said, the researchers hope to see data on cardiovascular disease and asthma rates near the now-closed Shenango plant, to see if they are affected by the reduction of pollution there.

Dr. Gentile said AHN doctors are now contacting more communities in the shadow of industry polluters, such as Braddock and Clairton, to raise awareness of asthma and the importance of keeping it under control.

Many people don't understand how controlling asthma can change their lives for the better, she said. "The more they see us, how many people have asthma, they know it's bad."

Jill Daly: jdaly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1596.