The proportion of children with asthma is thought to be increasing worldwide, and particularly among children that live in more developed countries. However, it is not clear why this is, since many different aspects of lifestyle and the environment have been linked with the onset of asthma. In Africa, asthma has typically been thought of as being very uncommon, and indeed in many African dialects there is no word for asthma or the symptoms, such as wheezing, that asthmatic children experience. However, some research studies have suggested that asthma might be becoming more common in Africa and that this could be linked to ongoing economic and social changes.
Why Was This Study Done?
The researchers here wanted to understand whether the trend for childhood asthma to be on the increase worldwide was also the case in Africa. Economic growth is bringing about rapid changes in lifestyle in many developing countries, and at the same time the burden of disease is changing. In order to make sure that health systems are appropriately resourced, it's important to anticipate future changes in the burden of different diseases.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
This study was based on a comparison between two surveys, carried out ten years apart, of children attending three schools in Ghana's second largest city, Kumasi. The surveys were done in 1993 and 2003, and the schools surveyed were a rich city school, a poor city school, and a school in the nearby countryside. The same methods were used in the two different surveys. Importantly, the researchers used an exercise test as an indicator for asthma, because language differences meant they could not find out whether children were indeed asthmatic.
In the exercise test, the schoolchildren ran outdoors for six minutes, and the researchers measured how fast the children could breathe out before and after exercise (their “peak flow”). Children whose drop in peak flow was more than 12.5% were classified as having exercise-induced bronchospasm, which is thought to predict asthma.
The children were also tested for their response to extracts that commonly cause allergic reactions, such as from dust mites and cat and dog hair. 1,095 children were studied in 1993 and 1,848 in 2003, paralleling the growth of the city, which also meant that by 2003 the rural school had become incorporated into the city. Over this period of time, the proportion of children with exercise-induced bronchospasm increased in all three schools; overall this proportion went up from 3.1% to 5.2%. Children from the rich city school were most likely to have exercise-induced bronchospasm at either survey date. However, children from the poor city school experienced the biggest change over the time period studied, with more than double the proportion of children having exercise-induced bronchospasm in 2003 as compared to 1993. The researchers also saw similar trends in children who had allergic reactions to common substances.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The researchers observed substantial increases in the rate of exercise-induced bronchospasm, and allergic reactions, between the two survey dates. This finding suggests that asthma is likely to have become much more common in that time. However, exercise-induced bronchospasm is not an exact indicator of asthma so it is not possible to be certain about this. These changes are likely to be linked with the adoption of westernized lifestyles, but which precise factors are responsible for the increase is not clear. Factors linked to the development of asthma include a lower rate of childhood infections, a lower rate of breast-feeding, environmental pollution, and many others. Links between the increase in exercise-induced bronchospasm and any of these factors were not examined in this study. However, these results suggest that if the findings here are common to other African cities as well, a greater proportion of African health budgets will need to be devoted to asthma care in the future.