Tuesday, March 06, 2001

Study links pets, asthma in kids

Children need tests to find exact cause

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A new study may add documentation to the idea that pets can cause asthma in children, but allergy experts doubt that statistics will convince many people to give up the family pet.

        Pet owners want solid proof before getting rid of Spot or Fluffy. But few ever get such proof because doctors say most children with asthma do not receive comprehensive allergy tests.

        “Less than 15 percent of kids with asthma are ever seen in an allergist's office, much less tested,” said Dr. Jeffrey Wald, a Kansas City, Mo., allergist and a former trustee of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

        On Monday, a study by

        Children's Hospital Medical Center published in the journal Pediatrics reported that more than 530,000 cases of childhood asthma a year (nearly 40 percent of all cases) could be prevented by eliminating three common household causes of allergy: pet dander, tobacco smoke and using gas stoves for heating a home.

        The findings are important because they remind the public that relatively simple, low-cost actions could prevent more than $402 million a year spent on inhalers, medications, doctor visits and hospital care for asthmatic children, according to study author Dr. Bruce Lanphear.

        “These and other data demonstrate clearly that children's health is inextricably linked with housing,” Dr. Lanphear wrote. “Unfortunately, despite growing evidence that residential exposures have a dramatic impact on children's health, housing is largely ignored as a public health problem.”

        But getting people to fix housing issues has been harder than writing prescriptions for the latest allergy-control medication.

        “Most people do not get rid of their animals, even after testing (proves a risk),” said Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati and a member of the Bernstein Allergy Group.

        Instead, families with asthmatic children spend money on special filters and duct cleaning services of debatable value. Some heed advice to remove bedroom carpeting and wrap pillows and mattresses in allergy-proof material. Many try, and frequently fail, to keep pets outdoors or at least out of bedrooms.

        Then the children endure their illness with whatever control is provided by medications.

        “A lot of people ignore common sense and just want to rely on medications,” Dr. Wald said.

        Monday's study may help some families take the allergy risks posed by pets more seriously. But Dr. Wald also criticized doctors who issue blanket orders to get rid of the cat or dog should a child be diagnosed with asthma.

        “What if the pet isn't the cause of the allergy?” Dr. Wald said. “ Now you have an angry household that still has a sick kid.”

        Doctors say Monday's study is one more piece in the growing understanding of the link between allergies, chemical irritants and asthma.

        Dr. Lanphear said he is working on more studies to detail the asthma risks caused by dust mites and cockroaches. Dr. Wald said other studies are documenting the risks posed by molds.

        Someday, Dr. Bernstein predicted that companies will develop household allergy testing kits that could help prove whether it's really Fluffy, or a dust mite, or a mold that's making their child sick.


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