Returning to school poses a risk for children with respiratory illness - report

7:28 pm on 8 September 2021

A new report on New Zealand's respiratory health shows that huge inequity persists for Māori and Pasifika and returning to school can pose a risk for children with respiratory issues.

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Asthma inhaler Photo: 123RF

The Impact of Respiratory Disease in New Zealand: 2020 update report was released today by the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation New Zealand (ARFNZ).

Pacific hospitalisation rates were highest across all indicators except for asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) where Māori rates were higher.

Māori had the highest mortality rates for total respiratory disease, asthma and COPD; bronchiectasis and childhood pneumonia mortality rates were highest in Pacific peoples.

New recommendations in the report include initiatives to improve housing quality and warmth, and further research to identify elements of the Covid-19 pandemic response that could reduce respiratory illness on an ongoing basis.

ARFNZ chief executive Letitia Harding says the report shows there are still massive issues around respiratory diseases in New Zealand and massive inequities for Māori and pasifika communities.

"Chronic and serious respiratory illness continues to be a massive health burden to New Zealand, costing an estimated $6.68 billion and accounting for 1 in 10 of all 2019 overnight hospitalisations, with Pacific peoples and Māori sharing the highest burden."

Harding says a reason for these issues is because of cold, damp housing people live in.

"A big part of it is unhealthy homes. We have more Māori and Pasifika living in damp, cold housing. It's something I think people are becoming more aware of now and we need to sort out cold, damp homes Aotearoa, its a big issue."

"Urgent programmes to reduce severe ethnic and socio-economic inequality; targeted programmes for at-risk communities, and research into the prevalence of obstructive sleep apnoea are all vital, and the fact these recommendations have to be reiterated two years down the line indicates that more urgent action is required."

Harding says proper messaging and partnering with other organisations can help reduce these statistics.

"Messaging is another important thing. We put a lot of time in trying to reach communities with information so we have translated all our resources into Te Reo, Samoan and Tongan."

"We also want to partner with the communities that know their community. We're a national organisation but we rely on partners to really get messages out there."

An interesting finding of the research is the impact returning to school can have on a child's respiratory issues.

Harding says the back-to-school effect is more dramatic than the winter effect and ARFNZ will be investigating ways to reduce the impact of returning to school on children's health.

"We are all aware come winter you get higher asthma and respiratory issues for kids and anyone with underlying respiratory issues. But we found that in the first term, in week 3, children have three times the risk of asthma getting worst. We want to be aware of that, especially with children returning to school this week after lockdown," Harding said.

"If you have a child that is asthmatic, make sure they have their asthma inhaler and make sure they know what to do and that it isn't expired.

"This can happen because of different triggers, like being thrust in a new environment with kids who might be sick, going back to school in spring means there is a lot of pollen in the air, there are many different reasons."

The report also highlights how the Covid-19 pandemic response has helped substantially reduce respiratory disease rates.

ARFNZ medical director Dr James Fingleton said: "Covid-19 pandemic management measures greatly reduced overall respiratory infection, which made the 2020 figures unrepresentative of usual trends.

"We must learn lessons from this to reduce the burden of infectious respiratory diseases long term."

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