Approximately one in five children in Qatar suffer from asthma, a rate that’s held steady in recent years despite the country’s relatively poor air quality and increasing levels of construction, a local healthcare expert has said.
However, Dr. Ibrahim Janahi – an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar and head of pediatric pulmonology section at Hamad Medical Corp. (HMC) – said misdiagnosing asthma in children under the age of five continues to be a common problem here.
Many of the symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath, are generic and experienced by many Qatar residents who have been exposed to an increasing amount of construction dust and vehicle emissions as the country rapidly develops.
“The symptoms (asthma) presents at that age are nonspecific and mix with many different diagnosis,” Janahi said during a recent interview with Doha News.
He was speaking on the sidelines of a recent educational session for healthcare professionals in Qatar about the latest research on asthma management, diagnosis and treatment of the chronic disease.
During the session, he explained to local doctors how to listen to different coughs and identify asthma “wheezes,” in addition to other symptoms.
He said that around 20 percent of children in Qatar between the ages of six and 14 have asthma, according to 2011 statistics.
That figure has apparently remained unchanged since a 2006 study he undertook. The percentage of local adult asthma sufferers is comparable to the rates found in children, he added.
Qatar’s figures are similar to other GCC countries such as Oman, where 20.7 percent of children have asthma.
Janahi argued that there is no consensus on what specifically causes asthma.
However, several theories have emerged based on the higher prevalence of asthma in developed countries, compared to developing countries.
One such contention is dubbed the “hygiene hypothesis.” It suggests that when one’s surroundings are so clean that an individual becomes sheltered from infections, their immune system becomes more sensitive and begins reacting to “antigens,” which increases the prevalence of asthma, Janahi said.
Another theory focuses on the connection between asthma and environmental factors, such as smoking, viral infections and exposure to certain particles.
“There (are) hypothesis that (state that) the increase of asthma in developed or industrial countries (is due to the) exposure to particles, to gases, to industrial byproducts, ” he said.
A recent study by Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar on the country’s air quality found that the annual average air pollution in Qatar exceeds not only guidelines set by Qatar’s National Standards, but those of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency.
Qatar’s air is among the most polluted in the world, according to a 2014 WHO study.
Although pollution acts as a trigger for asthma symptoms, Janahi said there is no proof that it actually increases the disease’s prevalence.
He said he and several colleagues conducted a study approximately five years ago that compared the rate of asthma prevalence in schools in the industrial areas of Ras Laffan and Umm Said to Doha.
They found no difference in the figures between the industrial areas and the capital city.
Similarly, unpublished research on the relative prevalence of asthma among schoolchildren in Doha produced comparable results.
As Qatar rushes to build new hotels, apartments, roads and stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, dust from construction is an inevitable byproduct.
Jahani describes the particles as a “trigger” for asthma sufferers, but not a reason that could increase the rate of those who suffer from the disease.
Another trigger is dustmites, to which many people who suffer from asthma are allergic.
As Qatar endures another week of dusty weather in the aftermath of several sandstorms, keeping one’s house clear of dust and making sure air conditioners are cleaned thoroughly can help control an individual’s asthma symptoms.
Other asthma triggers include smoking, pollen, respiratory infections such as the cold or the flu, as well as extreme hot and cold temperatures, according to the American Lung Cancer Association.
Meanwhile, Janahi said that one of the few known ways of reducing a child’s chance of getting asthma is breastfeeding.
“Exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of (a baby’s) life is very protective against asthma,” he said, adding that it is known to shield infants from other diseases as well.
More broadly, he said that asthma is a genetic disease that can be controlled, but not easily prevented. Even when comes to looking at genetic factors, it’s difficult to pinpoint the culprit.
“There isn’t a single gene that could be blamed for asthma, it’s very variable, there are many genes that are related to asthma,” he explained.
Similar to other diseases, asthma symptoms can be controlled through one’s lifestyle.
That includes consuming a diet of primarily unprocessed food, fruits and vegetables as well as getting a sufficient amount of sleep and maintaining a healthy weight.
Janahi said that studies have shown that obesity makes it more difficult to control asthma symptoms.
Qatar is regarded as having one of the most obese populations on the planet, which contributes to a host of related ailments such as diabetes.