Renowned researcher to study children's asthma here

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Asthma affects more than 10 percent of the nation's population, with additional challenges for children throughout the Pittsburgh region.

So Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC has recruited nationally renowned asthma researcher Dr. Fernando Holguin to serve as clinical director of its new Pediatric Environmental Medicine Program.

Dr. Holguin will lead research in identifying how environmental risk factors affect children with asthma, with plans to develop education, prevention and treatment strategies to address those problems.

Children with asthma will be identified, while screening will be done to identify those yet to be diagnosed. Researchers then will study environmental factors affecting their conditions and ways to control their symptoms.

The results will include policy recommendations, improved understanding of how to prevent the effects of exposure and when best to take medications.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease that features episodes of narrowing of the airways resulting in coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. It can be fatal.

Dr. Holguin, a physician with a master's degree in public health, served as director of Emory University's Translational Asthma Research Program with a joint appointment in the respiratory air pollution health branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Heinz Endowments is funding the hospital program with a five-year, $5 million grant to move the region one step closer to its goal of having "every health-care system incorporating environmental medicine as a routine part of comprehensive health care," Heinz Endowments Chairwoman Teresa Heinz said.

The program's initial focus will be environmental exposures, including secondhand smoke. But the center also will study the impact of social, psychological and lifestyle factors, including obesity and depression, on asthma.

Already on the job, Dr. Holguin and his team of seven are working to focus its research on two communities, possibly including Braddock. A previous Children's Hospital survey had found one in four Braddock children, school-age or younger, to be afflicted with asthma.

The program, emphasizing research rather than treatment, will begin recruiting children for its studies in April.

The asthma burden in Pennsylvania is especially acute in children, African-Americans, females, people of low income and those with limited education. While the Pittsburgh region has the same rate of asthma as the nation, use of emergency services by local children with asthma is 300 percent to 400 percent above the national average, with local children being hospitalized two to three times the rate recommended by recent studies.

"Asthma is a more serious problem here than other places, but Pittsburgh offers opportunities to tackle this problem like nowhere else," Dr. Holguin said.

The region, he said, is ideal for the study of asthma because people tend to remain here longer than other places, providing continuity of research, he said.

Christine Weaver, executive director of the American Respiratory Alliance of Western Pennsylvania, based in Cranberry, said she already has met with Dr. Holguin and has plans for future meetings.

"I think it's a wonderful idea because a lot of kids we see in asthma camps suffer from environment issues -- secondhand tobacco smoke exposure and housing issues such as carpeting and pest infestations," she said. "Those are things we can do something about."

Ms. Weaver said Pittsburgh's old housing fosters various forms of indoor pollution that can aggravate asthma: "We want to convince people that air inside the house is many times dirtier than the air outside."

But outside air is another concern. In ratings last year, The American Lung Association named the Pittsburgh metropolitan area worst in the nation for the most days of unhealthful particle pollution levels, and second only to Los Angeles for annual air pollution.

"I'm delighted that Dr. Holguin is doing this," Ms. Weaver said. "We'll get down to the nitty-gritty of working together because everything they can come up with is something that will trickle down to people like us in the trenches to help kids."

Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 6, 2009) In its most recent ratings last year, the American Lung Association named the Pittsburgh metropolitan area worst in the nation for the most days of unhealthful particle pollution levels, and second only to Los Angeles for annual air pollution. This article as originally published Jan. 2, 2009 announcing the appointment of a new asthma researcher at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC referred to Pittsburgh's ranking in 2004.

David Templeton can be reached at or 412-263-1578.


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