Drugs and better nutrition before birth could wipe out escalating respiratory disease

Doctors will soon be able to "cure" asthma in the womb by treating the causes of the potentially fatal illness before children are born, one of Britain's leading asthma experts has predicted.

Doctors will soon be able to "cure" asthma in the womb by treating the causes of the potentially fatal illness before children are born, one of Britain's leading asthma experts has predicted.

Scientists believe improving expectant mothers' diets and new drugs will stop hundreds of thousands of children becoming ill with the disease each year - ending Britain's status as the country with the highest level of childhood asthma in the world.

The new strategy will be revealed next month by Professor John Warner at a major national conference on asthma, which is being co-organised by The Independent on Sunday, the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM), and the National Asthma Campaign. Professor Warner, head of child health at Southampton University School of Medicine, and one of Britain's leading asthma specialists, said: "Over the last 30 years, we've seen an enormous increase in the prevalence of asthma. I would expect we would be able to turn the clock back 30 years."

A global survey of asthma rates revealed last month that Britain has the world's highest percentage of children being diagnosed with asthma. About a third of all 13- to 14- year-olds in Britain suffer from the disease, the Global Initiative for Asthma found.

British children are three times more likely to suffer from asthma than Italian, French and German children. Doctors in the UK and Ireland now diagnose asthma five times more often than they did 25 years ago - seeing 20,000 new cases in both children and adults every week.

Professor Warner will tell the conference that the latest studies suggested that asthma could be prevented from occurring in up to 75 per cent of cases if preventative treatment began in the final three months of pregnancy.

The most promising treatments would be based on improved diets for expectant mothers, such as increasing levels of vitamins such as vitamin A, fish oils and antioxidants. Some scientists are increasingly convinced that poor diets low in nutrients such as vitamin E play a significant role in the development of asthma.

Doctors would eventually also be able to treat potential asthmatics - identified by family history or genetic predisposition to the disease - by treating the foetus with allergens to build up its natural defences. Even DNA vaccines could be created - although this is in the very early stages of research, Professor Warner said. Similar techniques could also be used for babies and infants under two. Toddlers could be treated with drugs to boost their natural immune response.

He stressed that these treatments are most likely to be very effective for up to three quarters of asthmatics. But even the remaining 25 per cent of sufferers with the greatest genetic predisposition to the illness, this approach could greatly lessen the severity of their condition.

The National Asthma Campaign estimates that asthma costs the NHS £850m a year. with an estimated 5.2 million sufferers. The IoS-sponsored conference will hear from several world experts on asthma, including Professor Stephen Holgate of Southampton University, and Dr Rob McConnell, an expert in the links between air pollution and asthma. The event is the first in a new series of RSM conferences intended to bring the public face to face with medical and scientific experts, focusing on major health issues.

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