Allergies, Asthma on the Rise in Asia

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24 April 2008

Adopting modern lifestyles, urbanization and even climate change are among some of the factors being blamed for an alarming rise in asthma in Asia. From New Delhi, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman has a preview of an upcoming first-of-its-kind medical report that details the seriousness of the problem.

The prevalence of allergic diseases in Asia is nothing to sneeze at. The World Allergy Organization is preparing to release its first ever global study, the "State of the World Allergy Report."

Doctors say this first worldwide study highlights the especially troubling rates in Asia, where allergies and asthma have doubled in many countries, compared to just a few decades back.

In rural Bangladesh, the prevalence of asthma in children has hit 16 percent, compared to just one percent in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

Mortality is also high in Asia, compared to the rest of the world. For example, for Chinese asthma patients aged five to 34, the death rate exceeds 10 percent.

One of the authors of the global report is the treasurer of the World Allergy Organization, Dr. Ruby Pawankar of the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo. She says the actual overall death rate in Asia may be higher because victims are not recognized as suffering from asthma.

"They land up in the hospital and they are just recorded as a cardio-respiratory arrest," she said.

Asthma is the world's top respiratory killer.

Researchers say the rise in Asia and the developing world is being caused by a variety of factors -- exposure to tobacco smoke and other pollutants, increased pollen resulting from climate change, wall-to-wall carpeting, rising consumption of fast foods and other elements of adopting a Westernized lifestyle.

There is also what allergists call the "hygiene hypothesis," where improved sanitary conditions in the developing world have led to a reduction in infectious diseases but a rise in allergies.

Speaking to VOA News in New Delhi, Dr. Pawankar says, even among physicians in Asia, the seriousness of allergies is not well recognized.

"Allergy is a major risk factor for asthma," she said. "And, the awareness of allergy in this part of the world has been pretty low. So, the understanding that this is the triggering factor has always taken a back seat, as compared to the Western world."

Dr. Pawankar says, when the disease is properly diagnosed, patients frequently are not getting needed treatments.

"Fifty percent of the people with these allergies and asthma live in developing countries," she said. "They do not have access to drugs."

Such patients are unlikely to have adequate funds or insurance to pay for the drugs.

In the Asia-Pacific region, researchers have found that 40 percent of recognized asthma sufferers need emergency medical treatment at least once a year.

The full extent of asthma and allergies globally and recommendations on addressing the issue from medical, social and economic perspectives will be detailed in the World Allergy Organization's unprecedented report, expected to be published in several months.