Asthma in school age : prevalence, incidence and remission in relation to environmental determinants

Abstract: Background In the past half-century, the prevalence of asthma among children and adolescents has risen and asthma has become an important public health challenge in Sweden as well as in many other countries, necessitating further studies on this complex disease and its risk factor pattern. The studies included in this thesis aimed to investigate the clinical expression of childhood asthma over time, to describe the determinants of new-onset and remission of asthma, and to evaluate possible environmental risk factors in northern Sweden.Methods As the result of a repeated questionnaire survey among primary school children aged 7-8 years in three municipalities in the north of Sweden, two pediatric cohorts were formed, one in 1996 (n=3430) and one in 2006 (n=2585). The cohort created in 1996 was followed annually until the age of 19 years. Skin prick testing was performed on children in both cohorts. Lung function and bronchial hyperreactivity testing were carried out in children with asthma in the first cohort. The study participation and retention rates were very high in both cohorts. Among children in the second cohort living in Luleå, the home addresses were assigned to coordinates in a geographical information system (GIS) to evaluate the impact on respiratory health of living near roads with much traffic, which was measured as the number of vehicles daily. We used a validated reported diagnosis of asthma and International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) questions were incorporated into the questionnaire. A cross-sectional study of children of the same age ten years apart, longitudinal studies on asthma incidence and remission as well as a cross-sectional study on vehicle traffic were performed.Results While children aged 7-8 years in 2006 more often had a physician-diagnosed asthma compared to children of the same age in 1996 (7.4% vs 5.7%, p<0.001), they had less asthma symptoms, especially severe symptoms. In parallel, a more beneficial environment and a more intense treatment with inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) were observed. The explanation for this change in clinical expression probably includes also an increased awareness and diagnosing of asthma. From age 12 years to age 19 years, the cumulative incidence of physician-diagnosed asthma was 7.2% and of current wheeze 22.0%. The risk of new-onset asthma in adolescence was increased among girls, sensitized and those with heredity for asthma. Smoking and home dampness increased the risk for incident wheeze. The risk for both incident asthma and wheeze was inversely related to number of siblings. Among children with current asthma at age 7-8 years, 21% were in remission, 38% had periodic asthma and 41% had persistent asthma at a follow-up at age 19 years. Subjects in remission and with periodic asthma had significantly less airway obstruction and showed less bronchial hyperreactivity compared to subjects with persistent asthma. The probability of asthma remission from childhood to early adulthood was significantly increased by absence of allergic sensitization, male gender and a low asthma severity scoring at age 7-8 years. Sensitization to furred animals was more important as a determinant of both incidence and remission than sensitization to pollen. Living close to roads with high traffic flows, especially with heavy vehicles, was associated with an increased risk for current wheeze. Stratified analyses showed that the effect of traffic on asthma and wheeze was restricted to non-sensitized subjects.Conclusion Asthma onset in adolescence was more common among girls and remission was more common among boys. Children sensitized to furred animals and children with a more severe asthma were risk groups for persistence of asthma. Environmental factors such as smoking and dampness were associated to onset of asthma symptoms during adolescence, and vehicle traffic was associated with asthma symptoms among children also in a small city with relatively low traffic flows. Preventive measures like smoking reduction programs, improvement of damp housing conditions and separation of areas where many children live from heavily trafficked roads could prove to be beneficial.