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Asthma figure in Pittsburgh city schools triggers AGH study

Guy Wathen | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Dr. David P. Skoner, division director in allergies and immunology for the Allegheny Health Network, is the co-director of a Heinz Endowments-funded study that will examine what’s influencing the number of childhood asthma cases in the Pittsburgh area.

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By Adam Smeltz
Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, 11:45 p.m.

School nurses estimate as many as half of Pittsburgh Public Schools students live with asthma, a staggering figure that is more than triple national averages and confounds doctors across the region, researchers say.

But the mystery could begin to unravel in a yearlong study announced on Monday by Allegheny General Hospital. A $415,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments will help doctors to identify more precise childhood asthma rates and exact triggers for the respiratory disease.

“If that 50 percent number in Pittsburgh is real, it means we have some real problems related to air quality,” said Dr. David P. Skoner, a study co-director and the division director in asthma, allergies and immunology for the Allegheny Health Network. He called the figure “hard to believe” but not impossible.

Pennsylvania health data show statewide childhood asthma rates climbed to 11.3 percent in 2008 from 6.6 percent in 1997, following 30-year trends that show the ailment in 10 percent to 15 percent of children across the country. Asthma sufferers can face shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and chest tightness.

While numerous studies try to sort out the national surge, organizers at the For Your Good Health asthma camps in Pittsburgh noticed the problem worsening among the city schools' 26,000 students. Skoner, who leads the nonprofit camps, said anecdotal evidence there points to a significant uptick over the past decade.

He and his colleagues asked the Heinz Endowments in August for money to study the issue. In a prepared statement on Monday, endowments President Robert Vagt said the project marks “another important indicator of the critical need for all of us in this region to work together to protect the health of one of our most vulnerable groups, our children.”

About 25 workers will help gather information for the study, which will enroll 150 fifth-graders at elementary schools that have yet to be selected. Health care providers will monitor their breathing pattern, their weight and their exposure to stress and pollutants.

Other research has spotlighted elevated levels of some air pollutants in the Pittsburgh area, even in the wake of the steel industry's decline.

Chagit Sacks, 40, of Squirrel Hill hopes the heightened attention will bolster public awareness of asthma, including preventative measures that can curtail severe asthma attacks.

“It doesn't mean that it's not going to happen, but it might be able to prevent the frequency and the severity of it,” said Sacks, whose son Eli, 15, has had asthma since he was 8. Each spring, he spends weeks indoors to minimize his breathing difficulties.

“It's stopped me from playing sports and going to school at points, so it has changed my outlook,” said Eli Sacks, a sophomore at Taylor Allderdice High School. “Now I am much more grateful. Right now I'm at a point where I can play basketball, where last year I couldn't.”

Skoner said he hopes the new research, led by Dr. Deborah Gentile at Allegheny General Hospital, will be a pilot study that leads to more expansive reviews of childhood asthma and its causes. He said the overall idea is to improve prevention and treatment.

More than 24 million people nationwide have asthma, an increase of more than 4 million since 2001, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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