Generally considered a mild, manageable condition, the impact of asthma is greatly underestimated by many people across the globe. This has resulted in decades of lackadaisical approach to diagnosis and treatment.
The numbers highlight the disparity between perception and problem: over 300 million people are affected by asthma worldwide and, more strikingly, 346 000 people a year die from the condition.
These figures were presented by the 2015 Global Initiative for Asthma Report, a biennial review of the available literature on the condition conducted by the field’s leading academics and researchers.
Of particular concern to South Africa is that our country is number four on the list of reported asthma deaths, with 300 deaths per million, totaling around 15 000 deaths a year.
The South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) estimates that between 6 and 10% of South African adults suffer from asthma, notably higher than the global average of around 4%.
Read: How severe is your Asthma?
Even worse is that these numbers are increasing, especially in developing countries like South Africa, and especially among children, who bear the brunt of asthma mortality.
This is despite the availability of the medication and expertise to diagnose and treat the condition at both state and private levels. So, what is causing the problem?
One of the main issues is underdiagnosis. The SAMJ claims that most patients only go to hospital once their symptoms are severe and, at this point, often much more difficult to treat. Furthermore, many patients, irrespective of the stage at which their condition was diagnosed, do not properly adhere to the asthma treatment instructions.
The SAMJ, however, does not place all the blame on patients, noting that the South African healthcare system is stretched thin and has to deal with a number of HIV-related lung diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. In the face of this burden, it is not difficult for asthma to be under-appreciated and under-diagnosed.
Read: What are the causes of Asthma?
The most important step in combating South Africa’s asthma problem is education – specifically educating the public about the seriousness and symptoms of asthma, as well as driving home the importance of sticking to one’s treatment regime for those already living with the condition.
Awareness campaigns are crucially important here, especially as we enter February and the World Health Organisation shifts its focus to respiratory health awareness.
These campaigns need to involve parents, patients, healthcare professionals, support groups and teachers in order to produce a far-reaching network capable of identifying and providing effective treatment for asthma.
By taking these steps, South Africa can lessen the burden of disease on our healthcare system and seriously reduce the mortality rate from this illness, especially among children.
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Global Asthma Report, 2014, http://www.globalasthmareport.org/
World Health Organisation, 2013 Asthma Factsheet, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs307/en/
Zar, H. J., Lalloo, U. G. Acute asthma treatment guidelines: Reducing morbidity and mortality in South Africa, 2013, South African Medical Journal http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?pid=S0256-95742013000300023&script=sci_arttext