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Health panel urges asthma control

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By Bill Zlatos
Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

Asthma controlled Liz Sandhagen's life for about 20 years.

It put her in the hospital for at least a week 30 times. When her future husband gave her flowers and perfume for Christmas, she got rid of the flowers and returned the perfume -- both triggers for her illness.

"I'd get to the point where my sinuses were so swollen I couldn't see," she said. "My husband and I couldn't take trips. You can't get into a plane if you're sitting next to somebody wearing perfume."

Sandhagen, 46, of Whitehall discussed her condition on Wednesday at the Priory in the North Side as part of an asthma summit sponsored by Allegheny General Hospital and The Breathe Project, a coalition that is trying to clean the air in the region. The project estimates that 51,000 children in Southwestern Pennsylvania have asthma.

"Asthma kills people. It lands people in hospitals and emergency rooms because it's hard to breathe," said Dr. David Skoner, division director of allergy, asthma and immunology at West Penn Allegheny Health System.

The summit during World Asthma Month highlights a chronic, incurable disease that results in 456,000 hospitalizations and 3,447 deaths a year.

Skoner said he helped organize the conference after 100 local pharmacists told him how poorly their patients controlled their asthma.

Skoner said pollution, tobacco smoke, allergens and viruses can trigger asthma attacks. Dr. Deborah Gentile's research found that tobacco smoke, obesity and vitamin D deficiency increase the risk for asthma. She is director of research in the division of allergy, asthma and immunology at Allegheny General.

"About 30 percent of infants are exposed to tobacco smoke before they're born," she said. "It makes them two to three times at greater risk of developing asthma."

Surveys between 2008 and 2010 show 10 percent of adults in Pennsylvania and 9 percent in Allegheny County had asthma in the previous 12 months, said Dr. Vadim Drobin, an asthma control program epidemiologist for the state Department of Health.

Sandhagen developed asthma when she was in her 20s. She eventually found a medication, Xolair, that controls her illness.

"I really didn't think it was possible to go from the point where I was afraid to leave the house half the time," she said. "I'm like normal people."

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