Brussels, 14 Apr 2003
Asthma is dogging children's health in Europe, according to reports from last week's World Health Day. What is causing this threat? And what is being done about it?
'Shape the future of life, healthy environments for children'. This is the slogan for this year's World Health Day, now an annual event organised by the World Health Organisation. In Europe, the focus of the Day was on asthma and allergic diseases, common chronic illnesses affecting up to 25% of children in some EU countries.
In most European countries, the prevalence of asthma symptoms in children has increased by 200% over a 20-year period from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. Environmental factors have been blamed for much of this upsurge. Because, according to the WHO, children are particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards. Worldwide, around 40% of the disease burden attributable to environmental factors affects children under five years old.
On average, 10% of European children suffer from asthma symptoms. This rate is reported to be up to ten times higher in western Europe than in the East, according to the report 'Children's health and environment: a review of evidence', produced by the European Environment Agency and WHO's Regional Office for Europe.
An unhealthy environment for children
Allergies and asthma can be caused by several factors. Genetics is an important contributor to children developing asthma. But mounting evidence points to environmental factors. These include tobacco smoke, poor indoor and outdoor climate and some allergens, which contribute to the onset of allergic disease.
The European Commission fully supports the WHO's campaign against asthma in Europe. Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne believes as much as 20% of disease in the EU may be linked to the environment. The relationship between these factors is not yet fully understood, but "some areas for action are obvious", he explained in a recent press statement. One such measure, he added, would be to reduce children's exposure to tobacco smoke, which is known to trigger asthma.
A new Community strategy for environment and health, paying special attention to children's needs, is on the drawing board. Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström announced this last week on the eve of a visit to a hospital in Oslo for young people with allergies and asthma. "It is our duty to ensure that children enjoy a healthy start to life. It is their basic right," stressed the Commissioner.
Source: EU sources, WHO
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