'I felt like an alien. Now people understand'

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Michael Fielding's life used to be hell. As a young boy with severe asthma and countless allergies, every day was a battle against strong perfumes, pollen, cut grass, car pollution, dairy products and ignorant teachers.

Michael Fielding's life used to be hell. As a young boy with severe asthma and countless allergies, every day was a battle against strong perfumes, pollen, cut grass, car pollution, dairy products and ignorant teachers.

Two years ago, Michael and his mother Jackie told The Independent on Sunday how his life was slowly being transformed by leaving the polluted streets of south London for rural West Sussex. Now aged 13, Michael is still very vulnerable, but for the first time in his life he is in control of his symptoms. And his mother finally feels that people understand.

In the two years since the IoS launched its award-winning campaign to help Britain's 5.2 million asthmatics, there have been two developments for Michael: he now has a "medical statement" giving him rights to the correct care and help at school, and the Fieldings have noticed a change in awareness.

"Two years ago, I started to feel like an alien but now people are much more clued in to what I'm talking about," said his mother.

That change in attitudes has also been detected by the National Asthma Campaign (NAC). For the first time since the true scale of Britain's asthma epidemic first emerged in the late 1990s, health ministers now mention the disease in speeches. Last month, the Secretary of State for Health, John Reid, listed asthma, alongside diabetes, as one of two chronic diseases that the NHS should prioritise.

And the plight of Britain's 1.4 million children with asthma should be directly addressed, at least in part, this summer when the Department of Health issues official guidelines on treating asthma as part of its "national service framework" for children.

In line with our campaign demands in 2002, Education ministers are meeting asthma campaigners to plan new strategies for schools. Councils such as those in Leeds, Richmond upon Thames in Surrey, Newham in East London, and Oxfordshire are considering asthma in their schools, housing and transport policies. The construction of non-polluting cars is slowly moving up the Department for Transport agenda, while in London, congestion charging has significantly cut car use in the centre.

But according to Donna Covey, the NAC's chief executive, this progress is a very good start but not the solution. "Two or three years ago, we would struggle to find a Health minister who ever said the word 'asthma'. Now they know asthma is a problem, and are starting to talk about solutions. The next stage is to get them to invest. If the UK is top of the league table for asthma prevalence it has to be top of the league for finding a solution," she said.

"We would like to think our work and The Independent on Sunday's work has been part of making that happen, but there's still a long way to go. Asthma still isn't a government priority."

There are several other significant gaps in government policies on preventing asthma, any of which offer compelling reasons for continuing to campaign for awareness of the disease. Progress on meeting our key demands to tackle air pollution and build greener cars has been slow, particularly given the new evidence that traffic fumes causes asthma.

The NAC says calls by the Department for Education and the Welsh Assembly for 27,000 schools to implement national guidelines have produced only "very patchy" results - chiefly because ministers have failed to make caring for asthmatic schoolchildren a statutory priority. Until they do, Michael Fielding will remain one of the lucky few.

We want to hear your experiences of asthma. Contact asthma@independent.co.uk

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