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Study finds Alaska Native youth at risk for asthma
Friday, May 14, 2004

Native children in Western Alaska suffer from a high rate of chronic respiratory symptoms, including asthma, according to research published this month.

In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers looked at the health conditions of nearly 400 Native middle-school students in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta region of Alaska. They discovered that 40 percent experienced asthma, asthma-like symptoms or chronic productive cough.

Respiratory problems were reported equally among Native boys and girls. But researchers found that geography played a role in whether children suffered from asthma or chronic productive cough, sometimes referred to as "wet cough."

Children living in towns were at twice the risk of asthma than those who lived in villages, according to the study. On the other hand, village children were nearly three times as likely to suffer from chronic productive cough than those in towns.

"The reasons for variation in respiratory conditions within the YK delta are not clear," said Dr. Toby C. Lewis, who helped conduct the study. "There is a well-established, unified health-care system across the region, and, therefore, we do not think these differences are due to lack of access to health care or differences in diagnostic practices. Rather, we suspect there may be differences in environmental conditions that either increase risk or are protective for the children, and that these conditions vary within the region."

According to the study, a number of factors increase the risk for asthma and other respiratory conditions. These include crowded housing conditions, low income levels, exposure to tobacco smoke and exposure to wood-burning stoves. Alaska Natives have one of the highest rates of tobacco usage in the United States.

At the same time, the rural nature of the YK delta may protect Native children from asthma. "Exposure to concentrated industrial or motor vehicle emissions is rare," researchers wrote in the study. "Exposure to allergens is thought to be uncommon, given the subarctic climate."

Additionally, Alaska Natives in the delta have access to the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, a Native-funded consortium representing 58 village tribal councils. YK researchers worked with the University of Washington to conduct the study, which was published in the May issue of CHEST, the peer-reviewed journal of the American College of Chest Physicians.

Asthma is the most common childhood chronic disease, with at least 5 million children in the United States affected. Worldwide, asthma rates are on the rise.

Asthma is characterized by wheezing, coughing, or breathing difficulties, and can lead to hospitalization. Chronic productive cough can lead to difficulty in sleeping, which can affect school performance.

"These respiratory conditions were severe enough to cause school absence at least once a month for 5% of students and to trigger an emergency department visit for 8% of students within the last year," the researchers noted.

Most of the Native children in the study were of Yu'pik Eskimo heritage. “With a better understanding of how asthma affects specific populations, such as Alaska Natives, we may gain insight into how asthma can be more effectively managed and prevented," said Paul A. Kvale, the incoming president of the American College of Chest Physicians.

A study of American Indian and Alaska Native adults reported that 11.6 percent suffered from asthma, the highest rate among single-race groups. The national average for adults was 7.5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Study - Prevalence of Asthma and Chronic Respiratory Symptoms Among Alaska Native Children:
Abstract [Free] | Full Text [Requires Subscription]

Relevant Links:
Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation -

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