Kiwis not managing their asthma - Expert

Urgent action is needed to reduce the impact of asthma on New Zealanders according to one of the country’s leading experts on the disease.

A recent report[1] showed the incidence of asthma in NZ is among the highest in the world with mortality from the disease at 1.6 deaths per 100,000[2] and hospitalisation rates of 163 per 100,000.

The report also found significant socioeconomic differences in asthma hospitalisation with rates 3.7 times higher among those living in poverty.

Asthma is an inflammatory respiratory condition which causes sensitivity of the airways. The disease is characterised by symptoms of shortness of breath and wheezing and can be exacerbated during cold and flu season[3].

Recent data from the Impact of Respiratory Disease in New Zealand report says asthma prevalence of New Zealand’s children is approximately 15% and 11% of adults.

The report called for the urgent introduction of new programmes to reduce the severe ethnic and socioeconomic inequalities in respiratory diseases such as asthma.

Associate Professor Jim Reid from Otago University welcomed the report’s findings and says Kiwis are far too relaxed when it comes to dealing with asthma and its symptoms.

Professor Reid says more research is needed to understand why New Zealand has such a high rate of asthma and also to explain why some children seem to grow out of the disease.

He says the incidence of asthma is particularly high among Māori and Pasifika communities and those living in poverty.

Professor Reid makes the comments just days before World Asthma Day on May 2 and says it's a timely reminder for us all to put Asthma and the seriousness of the disease back into the spotlight.

“I think because asthma is so common, people have become a bit cavalier about it, it seems like every kid on the block has it, so it tends to get minimised, but last year 70 people died from asthma[4],” he says.

“We have still got one of the highest incidences of asthma in the world and at times up to 10-15% of the population suffer from asthma. There are few asthma symptoms that can’t be controlled so it’s important that people suffering get diagnosed and treated, ” he says.

Professor Reid says the key to getting the nation’s asthma burden under control is a simple Asthma Control Test (ACT) carried out at a doctor's surgery or pharmacy.

“I’m an enthusiast of the ACT. It allows GPs and pharmacists to assess patients with a score that shows what level of control they have over their symptoms. This number can be used to alter the patient’s medications and can significantly improve the symptoms of those suffering from uncontrolled asthma,” he says.

Professor Reid says early diagnosis of the disease is important to prevent long term damage to the lungs.

“If asthma is not controlled over a long period of time, the lungs can ‘remodel’, leading to scarring of the airways, and this can become permanent so these people end up wheezing all the time.”

He says that Kiwis also need a better understanding of the disease and to seek medical help in getting their symptoms treated.

“People have a very poor assessment of how severe their asthma is,

“I have one study running at the moment where we ask how good has your asthma been and the reply by most has been ‘excellent’, then they tell us they are using their [reliever] inhaler 10 or 11 times a day. So this tells us that patients have a pretty poor understanding of what good asthma control is!”

Prof Reid says along with poor control many asthma sufferers simply don’t seek help and may ignore their own and even their children’s symptoms.

There is still a bit of a stigma around asthma treatment in this country and it's unfortunate, because there is pretty good evidence that if children are appropriately treated then their chances of recovering from the disease are higher,” he says.

Find more information on the Asthma Control Test.

[1] Impact of Respiratory Disease in New Zealand: 2016 Update – University of Otago

[2] In 2013

[3] GINA Global Initiative for Asthma Report. Asthma Management and Prevention; 2016. Available from:

[4] Impact of Respiratory Disease in New Zealand: 2016 Update – University of Otago

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