Magazine article The Futurist

Childhood Asthma Rises in Europe, U.S.: Researchers Seek Causes Behind a Disturbing Trend. (Demography)

Magazine article The Futurist

Childhood Asthma Rises in Europe, U.S.: Researchers Seek Causes Behind a Disturbing Trend. (Demography)

Article excerpt

Across western Europe, pediatric asthma has reached epidemic proportions, causing greater economic and social damage than either tuberculosis or HIV, warns the World Health Organization (WHO) in a recent report linking childhood illnesses and the environment.

The chronic lung disease is also sweeping across the United States at alarming rates: Asthma increased by 75% during 1980--1994, according to the latest available figures at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Children are more likely to develop asthma than adults are, and inner-city children are hardest hit--that much researchers can agree on. What they can't agree on are the reasons why asthma, particularly pediatric asthma, is on the rise in developed nations. WHO blames filthy outdoor air resulting from traffic and industrial pollution for exacerbating the illness, while other researchers point the finger at indoor environments.

"Our houses are now hermetically sealed to save heating and cooling energy, and unfortunately this causes more indoor allergen exposure," says physician Calman Prussin, who heads the clinical allergy and immunology unit at NIAID.

But some scientists, including Fernando Martinez, director of the Arizona Respiratory Center at the University of Arizona, challenge the conventional notion that asthma is an allergic reaction to airborne irritants. Martinez theorizes that modern hygiene practices and antibiotics stunt the development of infants' immune systems, thus making more children than ever susceptible to the disease.

Martinez believes we need to look at both environmental and genetic factors.

"Most cases of asthma begin during the first years of life, which suggests that complex gene-by-environment interactions during these early years contribute significantly to the risk for the development of asthma," Martinez says. "Understanding the early alterations of the immune system that are associated with the subsequent development of asthma is essential for designing a strategy for preventing the disease."

Europe and the United States are paying dearly for their resident child asthmatics--and not just monetarily. …

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