Jack McGee, 12, dislikes asthma because it makes him different from other kids. It restricts his sports time and has resulted in many last-minute cancellations of sleepovers at friends' place. "I don't like having asthma. I cannot get a dog because of asthma. When I go to someone's house that has a dog, I get wheezy and that doesn't feel good. Then I have to take my puffers," he says.
As a result, McGee does not have a best friend or even a pet. His constant companion is his puffer. He dislikes this but knows it is necessary for him. "My puffer is helpful and it helps me breathe when I'm having difficulty, but I need to carry it everywhere. When I forget to take it my mum gets anxious."
McGee's asthma leaves him lonely, but he is not the only one in agony. Asthma, a chronic condition characterized by inflammation in the air passages of the lungs, now afflicts one out of 10 children in Canada. It is also the most prevalent chronic childhood disease. According to the Childhood Asthma Foundation, a Niagara Falls (Ontario)-based not-for-profit, 10 people die from asthma every week, including children. Social agencies lament such deaths are unwarranted as asthma can be controlled by avoiding allergens and taking medication on time.
Most deaths occur after repeated asthma attacks. While puffs are helpful in preventing an attack, the situation gets out of hand when the inflammation in the air passages becomes severe in an attack, making it impossible for the patient to breathe. "The attack really shakes you up. When I get an attack I cannot stand or lie down. I have to bend forward to breathe," explains Gurjinder Anand, who has had asthma for two decades now.
"The worst attack I had was when I was three months pregnant, and had to be hospitalized. I was given steroids. Something as common as house dust caused it." Anand's worries only increased when her son was also diagnosed with asthma. "He, too, has to rely on the inhaler," she said.
While it is fairly common for children of parents with asthma to have this disease, there is no conclusive research that confirms this trend. So far, the causes for high rates of childhood asthma are not clear. To obliterate this ambiguity, research is being conducted to find the causes for asthma. Hamilton (Ontario)-based Firestone Institute for Respiratory Health has initiated a five-year Canada-wide study that will monitor 10,000 families with children who have asthma. The study, titled 'Population studies of asthma incidence and causation', will monitor children from before birth to five years of age to resolve whether asthma is a hereditary disease or caused by environmental factors like poor air quality.
At present, doctors and health agencies advise parents of children with asthma to take precautions against this disease. This includes discovering the allergies that lead to attacks. What makes this task difficult is that allergies or triggers vary from person to person. Some of the most common triggers are dust mites, mould, animal hair and pollens. Once the allergies are targeted, the best thing is to keep them at bay; this is not always possible without community action.
For instance, there is an increasing push from social agencies to make schools more sensitive to the needs of children suffering from asthma. This includes keeping temperature and humidity at certain levels, enforcing no-smoking policies, making school lawns pesticide-free and so on. Secondly, schools follow the policy of keeping all medicines under the supervision of the principal. While this may work for other diseases, it does not work for asthma where a child needs to carry an inhaler at all times.
"We are pushing for changing this policy for asthma. We cannot take chances that the child would not have access to medication in the one-hour lunch break where the principal might not be in school," said Jodi Giammarco, executive director, Childhood Asthma Foundation. It is because of such asthma-unfriendly policies that it remains the leading cause for children missing school.
With no cure possible for the disease, social agencies stress the importance of educating children to keep away from the triggers. To meet this objective, the Asthma Foundation publishes and distributes a 25-page coloring book titled 'Living with asthma' among asthmatic children. The coloring book describes how asthma affects the lungs, information on some of the common triggers like outdoor pollution and so on. It teaches children to responsibly use inhalers and not share them with other children who have asthma. "We send this coloring book to schools, individuals and organizations that are working with asthmatic children. It helps children understand how they can control this disease," said Giammarco.
Meanwhile, statistics continue pointing to a gloomy picture where much work needs to be done. According to the Asthma Society of Canada three million people suffer from asthma in Canada and six out of 10 do not have it under control.
Children seem to be facing the brunt of this disease. The incidence of asthma in children under 15 years of age has increased by 400 per cent in the last 15 years.