AGH receives grant for asthma research

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Allegheny General Hospital has received a $415,000 grant from Heinz Endowments to research the rates of asthma among Pittsburgh children and seek ways to improve treatment.

In part, the grant will fund a project to improve identification of asthma among local schoolchildren, said Deborah Gentile, director of research in the hospital's Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

"Our short-term goal is to get a model up and running so we can go into schools and find out who has asthma and who doesn't," Dr. Gentile said.

Allegheny County has unusually high rates of asthma diagnosis.

Dr. Gentile hopes to use data collected in the project to identify environmental risk factors for asthma and develop policies to prevent the disease.

The project, which is set to begin this month, will track 150 fifth-grade students from local schools. Using questionnaires and breathing tests, researchers will examine the children for symptoms of asthma.

One of the purposes of the project is to make up for a lack of data about local asthma rates, Dr. Gentile said.

Researchers also will search participating schools for pollutants and allergens that cause asthma attacks, such as mold, air pollution, dusty carpeting, and wood- and coal-burning stoves.

"We're hoping to do the pilot schools over the next several months," Dr. Gentile said. "We'd like to have enough preliminary data so that next year we can look at this at a county level."

A 2012 report from the Pennsylvania Department of Health ranked Allegheny County sixth among Pennsylvania's 67 counties in emergency-room visits caused by asthma, with 21 visits per 10,000 residents. In the 2008-09 school year, 12.1 percent of Allegheny County students had been diagnosed with asthma, according to the report.

Asthma rates are especially high among the county's black population, according to a report from the Allegheny County Health Department. In 2009-10, 17 percent of blacks in the county had asthma, while 9 percent of whites had the disease.

The county's high asthma rates are largely due to smoking and air pollution, Dr. Gentile said. Although Pittsburgh has cleaned up much of its pollution in recent years, it still lags behind many other cities, she said.

In a news release, Heinz Endowments president Robert Vagt cited studies that have demonstrated the health hazards of air pollution.

"We support Dr. Gentile's research as another important indicator of the critical need for all of us in this region to work together to protect the health of one of our most vulnerable groups, our children," Mr. Vagt said in the release.

Dr. Gentile is seeking more funding to provide asthma kits to those who are diagnosed in the project. She also plans to lobby to change state policy so that asthma tests are administered regularly in schools, as are scoliosis and vision tests.

The Allegheny General Hospital project is the latest of several efforts to fight asthma in the region. In December, the Jameson Health System of Lawrence County created Jameson Asthma Care, a clinic dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of asthma. The University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute has conducted several studies on the disease.

In 2012 and 2013, Heinz Endowments partnered with Allegheny General Hospital for "The Air We Breathe: A Regional Summit on Asthma and Other Health Impacts of Air Pollution," which brought experts to Pittsburgh to speak about the impact of air pollution on health. Heinz Endowments also has funded a program to provide asthma care to students in the South Allegheny School District.

Richard Webner: or 412-263-4903.

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