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Asthma competes with the death toll of malaria

Malaria is recognised as a killer – particularly in low-income countries, but less known is that worldwide asthma has a similar death rate and affects nearly one of every 20 people.

Globally, there are 339 million people with asthma. It is the commonest chronic disease in children and remains one of the commonest chronic diseases in adults, causing disability in many. And it is estimated that asthma (like malaria) is the cause of death of some 1,150 people every day.

World Asthma Day is marked on 7 May, and internationally, medical professionals and researchers are taking the opportunity to draw attention to this too-common chronic disease.

Professor Innes Asher of the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences is the Chair of the Global Asthma Network. The organisation was established in 2012 to improve asthma care globally, with a focus on low- and middle-income countries, through enhanced surveillance, research collaboration, capacity building and access to quality-assured, essential medicines. Last year the organisation released the Global Asthma Report, setting out what is known about asthma, with the aim of influencing those in authority to act in an informed way to reduce the global burden of asthma.

Professor Asher is adamant that with correct diagnosis and treatment, many deaths from asthma can be prevented.

“Most deaths and disability due to asthma occur in people who are not taking medicines, especially inhaled corticosteroids, which are more expensive, especially in low-income countries.

“However, the illness itself is most common in ‘developed’ English-speaking countries like Aotearoa New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States. We are still not sure why this is – perhaps because of changes to our environment, our diet, or different exposure to some infections.”

Professor Asher said that even in New Zealand, more than 521,000 people are taking medicines for asthma one in nine adults and one in seven children. Asthma causes a death every week.