2 May 2017

Most NZ asthma deaths 'preventable'

6:37 pm on 2 May 2017

New Zealanders need to take asthma more seriously and make sure they control the disease well, asthma experts are warning.

Regina Walker and her son, Davis.

Regina Walker with her son Davis, who suffers from severe asthma. Photo: Supplied.

Fifteen percent of children and 11 percent of adults have asthma, an inflammatory respiratory condition characterised by shortness of breath and wheezing.

It causes 1.6 deaths and 163 hospitalisations per 100,000 people, with far higher rates among Māori and Pacific communities.

A recent report done for the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation indicated the disease was more prevalent for children in the Whanganui, Tairawhiti and Northland District Health Board areas, and for adults in Wairarapa, Hutt Valley and MidCentral.

Today is World Asthma Day.

Mount Maunganui mother Regina Walker will never forget the day her son Davis, then seven, had a severe asthma attack.

She put him in the car and headed straight to her local medical centre, keeping a close watch on him in the back seat in the rear-view mirror.

When she saw him "keel over" in the back seat, she stopped the car and rushed to help him, pulling him out to do CPR.

"I just made it to the doctor's front door. I didn't actually get inside. I dropped to my knees and just gave him CPR there and then."

She said she was told later that she had saved Davis's life.

Now 13, he was in and out of hospital because of his severe asthma on occasions, but they were alert to the symptoms and were managing it much better.

Ms Walker said she had been disturbed, however, to hear from some other parents in hospital emergency departments that they waited before coming to hospital.

"They said they couldn't afford the ambulance and just waited, and I'm standing there going. 'Why, so you're ... $55 or $70 is the price of your daughter or your son's life, because that's what's going to happen."

All patients need 'written action plan'

Otago University associate professor Jim Reid used World Asthma Day today to call for more action to tackle significant socio-economic and ethnic differences in the level of asthma in this country.

Mr Reid said 70 people died from asthma last year alone and more must be done to reduce that.

"It's so common in New Zealand, people say 'oh it's just asthma' but it's a bit more than that, and as I said, the majority of those 70 deaths are preventable."

A study he was involved in had shown that many people with asthma thought they had it under control when they did not, he said.

"They tick [a questionnaire] and say it's 'excellent control'.

"And then when you ask them how many times they're using their reliever inhaler, some of them are using it eight or nine times a day, and they think their asthma is well controlled, whereas if it is controlled they should be using it no more than twice a week."

GPs, practice nurses or pharmacists should be testing patients to see if they have good control over their symptoms, and changing their medications if they don't.

"They do need a written action plan so that if they do get an exacerbation they know when to call the doctor, they know when to increase their medication, and more important than that they need to know when to call an ambulance and get to hospital."

Another scientific advisor to the foundation, Bob Hancox, said New Zealand had one of the highest asthma rates in the world, alongside Britain and Australia.

"A lot of people feel that their asthma's under control whereas in fact they're actually having symptoms quite often and it could be much better," he said.

He said if people needed to use their reliever inhaler more than once a week or so they should talk to their doctor about getting a preventer.

"The trouble is that a lot of people have had asthma for many years and they get used to it and they put up with the symptoms, not quite realising that the asthma should be much better controlled."