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Health, Science & Tech

Study to Determine Extent of Childhood Asthma in Pittsburgh Region

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

It’s hard to know exactly how many kids have asthma in the Pittsburgh region but a study is underway aimed at determining just how prevalent it is and what some of the triggers may be. Nearly 25 million Americans and more than 9 percent of children suffer from Asthma. National and state studies show the rate of childhood asthma in Allegheny County to be around 13 percent.

“But we have pockets of different school districts where nurses are reporting that 50 percent of the children have inhalers and there’s also a school district that reports about 35 percent of their children have parent-reported asthma,” said Dr. Deborah Gentile, director of research at Allegheny General Hospital. “We think those numbers may be a bit high and we’re very interested in finding what the true prevalence or rate is.”

Gentile called Pittsburgh a hotbed for asthma and the national Allergy and Asthma Foundation ranks the Steel City as the 16th most challenging US city in which to live with asthma, based on factors such as air quality both indoor and outdoor.

“Some of these schools that are reporting high incidences, many of them are very close to polluting plants in the area,” said Gentile. “Many of them also may have high rates of cigarette smokers at home as well, so we are going to try to explore those factors in this pilot study.”

The Heinz Endowments has awarded a $415,000 for the study, which will go into elementary schools and give the children in the study questionnaires and breathing tests.

“Eventually the goal is to make it state law that all students in schools get screened for asthma,” said Gentile. “There are two states in the country that already do that and we think it would be very important to screen for asthma just like you do eye and hearing problems and scoliosis.”

Once researchers have an idea of just how prevalent asthma is in school children, the goal is to design studies aimed at decreasing rates by improving the environment and to also go into schools with intervention programs so students are less likely to miss school.

“It’s [asthma] the number one reason why kids miss school and anything we can do to enhance their school attendance and performance will actually help out economically,” said Gentile.

Gentile points the Pittsburgh Promise, which gives scholarships to qualifying Pittsburgh Public School students. One of the qualifications for funds is attendance. For the first part of the study, 150 fifth graders from three elementary schools will participate. Those kids will be assessed by healthcare providers trained in the assessment of pediatric asthma. They will track the kids’ airway function and body mass indexes as well as exposure to tobacco smoke and physiological stress. Regional air quality data for participating schools will be examined along with an environmental building survey that will look for allergens or pollutants.

Others involved in the study include researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh and representatives from the American Lung Association and the Healthy Schools Collaboration.