Springdale school part of study on prevalence of asthma in region
Screenings for asthma should be required for all Pennsylvania school children, just as tests for vision and hearing are, the principal investigator for an upcoming asthma study says.
Asthma is the No. 1 chronic reason why children miss school and often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, said Dr. Deborah Gentile, director of research in the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at Allegheny General Hospital, Pittsburgh.
Fifth-graders at Allegheny Valley's Colfax Upper Elementary School in Springdale are among those being sought to participate in a pilot study that Gentile is leading into the prevalence of asthma among the region's school children and the feasibility of screening students for asthma.
The study is intended to serve as a springboard into further research on identifying the environmental risk factors for asthma and developing policies aimed at asthma prevention.
“Though childhood asthma is widely recognized as a problem in the Pittsburgh region, objective data on this epidemic is sorely lacking,” Gentile said. “It's been widely reported that 50 percent of Pittsburgh Public School children are using a rescue inhaler for asthma. But we do not know if these children have been formally diagnosed with asthma by specifically trained health care providers using objective data.”
Asthma is a syndrome characterized by shortness of breath due to constriction of the airways that is reversible, said Dr. Norman Edelman, senior medical adviser with the American Lung Association. Symptoms include chest tightness, cough (especially at night), and wheezing.
Nearly 25 million Americans, and more than 9 percent of children, suffer from asthma.
Asthma accounts for 25 percent of emergency room visits and 3,300 deaths every year.
The Allergy and Asthma Foundation ranks Pittsburgh as the 16th most challenging U.S. city in which to live with asthma.
That's based on high levels of exposure to known asthma triggers such as poor outdoor air quality, indoor allergen exposure, tobacco smoke exposure and high poverty rates.
About 10 percent of Pennsylvania children, or more than 280,000, had asthma in 2012, according to the lung association.
“There's a lot of undiscovered asthma out there, especially in children. Frequently in children, the symptoms are atypical,” Edelman said. “If the undiscovered asthma is discovered, many children will benefit from it.”
The study, “Surveillance and Tracking of Asthma in our Region's Schoolchildren,” is funded with a $415,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments to Allegheny General Hospital.
In addition to Colfax, the research team is enrolling fifth-graders in the Woodland Hills and Gateway school districts, and at the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park in Pittsburgh.
Parental permission sought
Parents are being asked to permit their children to take part in the study.
Parents will answer a survey asking if their children have a history of asthma symptoms, and children will participate in breathing tests, Gentile said.
The two tests measure lung function and airway inflammation or swelling. The tests, which are noninvasive and easy to do, would be done during one visit to the school and take 15 to 20 minutes to complete, Gentile said.
Testing will be done late this month or in May, she said.
The results of the study will be used to develop a regional and possibly statewide screening program for asthma among school children.
Only two states, Vermont and Massachusetts, require asthma screenings, Gentile said.
Colfax was chosen, in part, because of the nearby coal-fired power station in Springdale. Gentile said researchers will want to see if asthma rates are higher at the school because of its proximity to a source of air pollution.
“Air pollution can trigger asthma for sure. Whether or not it causes asthma is a little unclear,” Edelman said. “A study of kids in urban areas shows the severity of asthma attacks and the number of attacks they have varies with their distance from major highways.”
Colfax Principal Jennifer Vecchio said her school was interested in participating in the study for “multitudes of reasons.”
“The opportunity presented itself,” she said. “We thought we'd take advantage of the situation and use it to the benefit of our children.”
Although about 10 percent of Colfax students have been identified as having asthma, Vecchio wonders if it might be higher, based on certain days when more children have headaches, stuffiness and shortness of breath.
Gentile is hoping for at least 70 percent participation but, as of last week, parents of only about 30 percent of Colfax's fifth-grade students had agreed.
“The more that participate, the more valid the results are,” Gentile said.
Vecchio said most parents have simply not responded. The school was reaching out to them in an effort to increase participation.
Any fifth-grader in the district, including those who are home-schooled or enrolled in charter or cyber schools, is eligible, Vecchio said.
Future studies will focus on identifying triggers of asthma as well as treatment and possible prevention of asthma among school children.
“The ultimate goal is to improve asthma outcomes by eliminating asthma triggers,” Gentile said. “We believe this research will also lead to the development of asthma screening policies and air pollution policies that will improve public health.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or email@example.com.
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