Asthma in India: It's in the air.

Photo by spykster |

What do you think of when you hear the term global health? If you responded with HIV/AIDS, malaria, or tuberculosis, you certainly wouldn’t be wrong. But what about diseases that are more commonly associated with environmental health? These hazards are responsible for about 25% of the total burden of disease worldwide. According to the World Health Organizaion (WHO), 13 million deaths around the world could be prevented every year by making our environments healthier.

Global environmental health is a vast topic, and one that is worthy of all the attention it receives. For now we’ll use air pollution in India as a brief case study. As the number of people driving in private vehicles increases, so does the number of children who suffer from asthma. Dr. Parmesh, an adviser and facilitator in the WHO, UNICEF, World Bank, and Government of India, conducted a 25-year study on 27,000 children living in Bangalore. In 1979, just 9% of children had asthma.

By 2004, 36.6% had asthma. While approximately 11% of children had asthma in schools situated in low traffic regions, 19% of children from heavy traffic schools suffered from asthma.

According to Dr. Parmesh, environmental changes are the main reason that these children have asthma. Since vehicular pollution is one of the main factors leading to this increase, you may not be surprised to learn that around 1500 vehicles are registered here daily. Transport emissions in India are primarily a concern because of the use of older diesel engines which emit approximately 170 times more sulphur than modern engines. According to one school principle, asthma is the most common reason students don’t come to school. This is one of the emerging faces of global health.

On a nation-wide scale, air pollution rates in India are amongst the highest in the world. 2.2 million people living in India die every year as a direct result of air pollution. Beyond the transport and emissions discussed above (one of the greatest contributors), industry, household pollution, and coal power stations are major factors leading to India’s air pollution problems. Other effects of increasing air pollution include acid rain, smog, and the direct health effects of the predominant use of wood as a household fuel.

So where do we go from here? Clearly, the importance of environmental health has not been overlooked as a major public health focus. In fact, the WHO has developed a Public Health and Environment (PHE) e-News series, as a way to highlight the importance of environmental health in the field of global health. In particular relevance to our story, students at schools in Bangalore are encouraged to carpool as a way to lessen the impact of emissions. The importance of carpooling, biking, walking, and taking public transit to get from A to B cannot be emphasized enough as rates of air-pollution associated illnesses such as asthma increase dramatically. As Derek Bok said, ”You think education is expensive? Try ignorance.”