The fact that more people are having their asthma diagnosed is a good thing. But the increased incidence of the chronic respiratory illness is not, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Robert Rolfs.
Last week, Rolfs and the Utah Department of Health's asthma program released a document outlining "Utah's Asthma Plan" during the 2003 Utah Asthma Summit.
The goal is creation of "asthma-friendly communities." It's a blueprint for improving quality of life by improving education, resources and treatment for those who have asthma, whether they realize it or not, said Mindy Williams, asthma program coordinator for the state. That means taking the message everywhere, from the workplace to the front office at the local elementary school.
It's estimated that 5 percent of Utahns have been diagnosed with asthma. It is believed that many others have not been diagnosed.
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways. "It leads to chronic changes upon which are superimposed acute airway changes," Rolfs said. Asthma affects more women than men but more boys than girls. It's more prevalent in African-Americans than in Caucasians. And it's more often found in children than adults, though it's "pretty common throughout life."
Asthma symptoms range from severe — even lethal — to very mild. Some people have no idea they even suffer from asthma. But nationally it's behind nearly 500,000 hospitalizations each year, 10 million missed school days and close to 5,000 deaths. About 15 million Americans have asthma, one-third of them children.
In Utah, more than $7.8 million was spent on hospitalization costs for asthma in 2001 alone.
The plan was created by work groups in five different areas: education, health systems, patient issues, risk factors and data and monitoring.
The first education goal of the plan is to see that people who have asthma have accurate information, skills and treatment to cope with the illness. It's important, as well, that the public realize that asthma is a public health problem and know about available resources.
In schools, for instance, a child having an asthma attack may end up in the office seeking help. Office staff must know how to provide that help.
The plan even talks about the need to see that health care benefits adequately provide essential asthma services. It also calls for appropriate indoor environmental air quality and sanitation rules.
In the workplace, emphasis is on making sure that the agents that can induce asthma are recognized, that surveillance and monitoring take place and that programs are developed to encourage worksite disease management.
Patients who learn how to control their asthma have a better quality of life and reduce costs — not all of them financial, Rolfs said.