Running on Empty: The Crisis in Asthma Control
Gillespie and her husband had hoped to expand their Vancouver clinic into a full-fledged allergies and asthma teaching unit – where asthma patients would be taught to monitor their lung function and shown how to manage their disease. “We figured we could look after the province with just five asthma educators,” she says. But they could not get the funding they needed.
At the very least, asthma is on the federal government’s radar. Ottawa is involved in major discussions, led by the Lung Association and including patient groups, the medical community and the pharmaceutical industry, which will be held over the next two to three years.
The intent is to develop a national plan – the Lung Health Framework – that will “stem this impending crisis” in respiratory health in Canada. (The framework will include lung cancer and emphysema as well as asthma).
In the shorter term, there are other projects in the works. Dr. Judah Denburg, the CEO and scientific director of the research network AllerGen, says his organization is working with the government and others on a pilot project that would “make it imperative” that every patient in Canada who is diagnosed with asthma undergoes a lung function test.
When it comes to efforts to improve education and treatment, Chapman of the University Health Network criticizes the slowness to act. “I don’t think there’s been a good application of some of the things we’ve known for years about treating asthma,” he says.
“Somehow, heart disease and cancer always get a lot of attention. And appropriately so. But there certainly is some progress that we can make with asthma that we’ve failed to make.”
Poor asthma control isn’t just bad for the patient: in Canada, more than eight million work days are lost each year due to asthma-triggered absenteeism. Respiratory disease as a whole costs the Canadian economy an estimated $15 billion a year. Worldwide, the economic costs associated with asthma are thought to be greater than tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined.
Experts hope that as education efforts improve, asthma patients will finally get the message, and spend less time in the emergency room and more time enjoying physical activity and staying healthy.
And there’s even greater incentive to accelerate education and treatment: although the number of deaths caused by asthma has gone down in recent years, more than 200 people still die of it every year in Canada. Almost all of those deaths could have been prevented because, as Boulet puts it, “asthma should really just be a minor nuisance.”
Yet, we all know that person who claims to have “bad asthma,” whether it’s the girl who is always huffing and puffing on your sports team or your friend who refuses to go to the gym because “I can’t.” These people all have one thing in common: they’re being fooled by their condition.
First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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