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What if we could fix this early?
BREATHE EASY

New science suggests there’s a fishy way to treat asthma in kids

By Chase Purdy

Around the globe, asthma is the most common respiratory illness among young people, and many can’t access or afford the medication needed to keep symptoms at bay. New research out of Australia suggests there may be an alternative way to reduce suffering from the illness.

A team of scientists with La Trobe University in Melbourne just released the results of a clinical controlled trial that shows feeding kids more fish might do the trick. The study, published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, lasted about six months and included Greek kids between five and 12 years old, all of whom had been diagnosed with asthma and who generally adhered to a typical Mediterranean diet.

They divided 64 kids into two groups. The first group simply followed their normal diet with no intervention. The second group was instructed to eat two meals of cooked fatty fish—such as salmon, trout, and sardines—each week. Along the way, the researchers tested the kids for bronchial inflammation, a condition in which a person’s airways periodically inflame and cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. To test for bronchial inflammation, the scientists had the kids breath into a mouthpiece and then measured the air they exhaled for nitric oxide, which becomes more present when the lungs are inflamed because it’s the body’s way to try and reduce swelling. The results were measured in units, with a reduction of anything more than 10 units representing what would be considered a significant change.

The group who ate fish rescued their bronchial inflammation by 14 units.

A potential explanation is that fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown in previous studies to have anti-inflammatory impacts on the lungs, according to the researchers. The study has its limits; among them is that it can’t show whether or not eating more fish would impact a similar group of children who live in another part of the world and eat a different base diet that that of the Greek kids who participated. It’s also too early to say whether omega-3 fatty acid supplements would make any difference. The efficacy of dietary supplements widely available in retail outlets have been scrutinized for years by health experts.

But if the results of the study do bear out in future research projects, it could significantly dent what’s become a serious global health concern. Asthma is the most common respiratory illness among young people, and a chief reason kids wind up in hospitals. In America, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention estimates close to 10% of children younger than 18 live with asthma.

In August, the World Health Organization’s Global Asthma Network met (pdf) in Helsinki, Finland to present an 88-page report updating health officials on the state of asthma around the globe. In total, it is estimated that 339 million people suffer from it, and many can’t afford or obtain treatment. Asthma, if left untreated, can become an expensive public health problem.

“Asthma is a particularly serious burden in low- and middle-income countries which are least able to afford the costs,” the report states. “Economies suffer because asthma keeps people away from work, or if they are at work, asthma stops them working effectively.” In Europe the economic cost of asthma in 2011 was estimated to have clocked in at about €19 billion ($21.6 billion). In the US, the CDC guesses (pdf) it causes about $56 billion in economic losses each year, with more than 8.9 million doctors office visits a year.