The success of the IoS Asthma Campaign

It began four months ago with an exclusive report linking car fumes to the cause of a disease that afflicts one in seven British children. Since then, with your help, we haven't looked back.
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Four short months ago asthma was a shamefully neglected epidemic. It blighted the lives of one in seven British children, and killed 30 people a week – but few except those who suffered from it seemed to care.

Four short months ago asthma was a shamefully neglected epidemic. It blighted the lives of one in seven British children, and killed 30 people a week – but few except those who suffered from it seemed to care.

Ministers scarcely registered it, and almost never spoke about it. Two-thirds of schools neglected to help their asthmatic pupils. And, despite mounting evidence that pollution from cars exacerbated the disease, the Government scrapped promises to reduce traffic.

Now there is a marked change of atmosphere. As we report today, Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, is to make asthma among children one of his department's top priorities. Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, has instructed all schools to take the disease seriously. At the instigation of Environment Secretary, Michael Meacher, new pollution controls are to be introduced throughout Europe. And the new Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, says that action must be taken to curb traffic growth.

All this has followed the launch of The Independent on Sunday's asthma campaign in February, which experts have applauded for its impact.

A radical change was long overdue. Six times as many children – and four times as many adults – suffer from the disease in Britain as 25 years ago. In all, 5.1 million people are now affected, and another three million have had the disease at some time in their lives, making Britain the worst affected country in Europe. It costs the NHS around £850m a year to treat.

The World Health Organisation has warned the epidemic in western Europe is causing greater economic and social damage than either TB or HIV/Aids, and, in children, is as important as nervous disorders or cancer. It urges governments to increase preventive measures and medical research, improve treatment, and to reduce air pollution and traffic.

Yet earlier this year more than a quarter of the country's primary care organisations admitted to MPs that they did not treat asthma as a priority. Half of all schoolchildren with asthma had no access to their inhalers when they most needed them, and most sufferers were not properly informed about how to control the disease.

The Independent on Sunday began its campaign after a major US government-backed study in California showed for the first time that pollution from traffic causes the disease, as well as simply exacerbating it. Another study in Nottingham gave the first evidence that British children were getting the disease from exhaust fumes. Michael Meacher then won unanimous backing at the European Council of Ministers for a review of EU controls on the pollution that causes the disease.

Mr Meacher and the then Public Health minister, Yvette Cooper, asked Britain's most senior specialist body – the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution – to rethink its previous view that pollution did not cause the disease. The committee's chairman, Professor Jon Ayres, called the California study "very, very important".

One county council, Oxfordshire, introduced a new policy in its 300 schools and invited asthma campaigners on to its planning groups. Brian Hodgson, the council's Labour group leader, said that there had been "no other stimulus" for him than the IoS campaign.

And today Alan Milburn has confirmed that asthma in children is to get even greater priority in a major new national health strategy, due out next year. The European Commission will also spend millions on researching the biological and environmental causes of the disease. Meanwhile, the National Asthma Campaign said that our campaign had caused a "marked increase'' in calls from school nurses and parents seeking information on the disease.

All this is good as far as it goes, but it is not enough. We will continue to campaign until every health authority and every school makes the disease a priority. We want a safe, no-car route to school to be available for every child, traffic discouraged in 1,000 pedestrian zones, 5 per cent of all vehicles to emit no pollution whatsoever and traffic to be reduced by 7 per cent.

It will take time, but we will stick at it. Professor Martyn Partridge, the chairman of the National Asthma Campaign and British Thoracic Society, says: "You can't expect things to change overnight, but I am certain that this great and consistent campaign will have an impact on a whole set of priorities."

The 'Independent on Sunday' Asthma Campaign: National Asthma Campaign Helpline: 08457 010203;

'With all the pollution in Oxford, one assumes every child suffers'

When Tracy Gray had her first asthma attack at the age of 11 she had no idea what was happening. Neither did her primary school teachers. It began when she had just finished a long-distance run and she realised she couldn't breathe.

"It was horrible," says Tracy, now a 17-year-old sixth-former. "I panicked. No one there knew what was happening so they put me in the recovery position. It was a school sports day and the teachers were at the other end of the field."

Lucy Woelki, 12, who has just started secondary school, says her primary school merely sent her outside when she had an attack. "They wouldn't let me have my inhaler unless it got bad," she says. "I felt nervous. I don't why they wouldn't let me have my inhaler."

According to research by the National Asthma Campaign, two-thirds of schools neglect to help their asthmatic pupils. But in Oxfordshire, where Tracy and Lucy live, that is about to change. In response to The Independent on Sunday's asthma campaign, the county council has voted to ensure every school introduces an asthma policy. Measures will include ensuring that schools always have inhalers available, that "triggers" such as dust and chemicals are removed and, crucially, that teachers can recognise an asthma attack and know what to do.

Tracy and Lucy attend Oxford's Matthew Arnold comprehensive school, where 33 out of 820 pupils have asthma. A recent study by the University of Leicester found links between asthma and exhaust fumes, and Oxford is notorious for its traffic congestion. Indeed, the Thames Valley has a higher-than-average incidence of asthma. Maggie Henderson, the head of years 9 and 10, says: "It is safest to assume that every child has asthma." Ms Henderson herself developed asthma after she moved to the area.

The school is on Cumnor Hill near the A34 but in a leafy area where the suburbs have not quite beaten off the countryside."It is windy up here," says headmaster Adrian Percival, whose seven- year-old son has asthma.

He is proud that his school takes the condition seriously. "Health and safety is vital to us," he says. "A few children carry adrenaline pens because of severe allergies, which I think are connected to asthma. Inhalers are available for children and we have been working to minimise triggers, such as introducing wipe boards instead of chalk boards and putting down carpets that attract less dust. Science is an area where we have to be careful because of chemicals.

"We have a dedicated first- aider who is called if a child has a serious attack, but there may be some things a teacher can do in the meantime. The new policy is particularly relevant for primary schools. Children suffer most when young."

The pupils, however, are full of praise for the school's policies. Dan Haydon, 14, who also has asthma, says his parents received a letter saying his spare inhaler, which is kept at the school, needed replacing. Tracy and Lucysuffer from asthma attacks after sports. Lucy says that while playing hockey it developed but a teacher came over to her with her inhaler.

"You know your limits," says Tracy, "and you leave your inhaler with a teacher." They enjoy sports and would be loath not to play them. A survey of 1,000 asthmatics found 51 per cent restricted their activities. Yet all the children maintain that doing sports helps their asthma, because "it makes your lungs work".

Andrew Johnson