Tackling respiratory disorders – one of the major health concerns in the UAE

A 2013 study by UAE University showed the population was at high risk of exposures to occupational and environmental factors that lead to illnesses such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. We look at how to mitigate the risks.

Celest Sanderson with her sons Liam, left, who suffers from severe asthma, and Corey. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
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As the temperatures rise along with our air-conditioning bills, so does the risk of developing or exacerbating a respiratory illness. Figures show that more than one in 10 people in the UAE are affected by asthma, and summer is often the worst time of year for irritations or attacks.

A 2013 study led by UAE University identified respiratory disorders as one of the “big four” public health issues in the country. The UAE population, it said, was at high risk of exposures to occupational and environmental factors that lead to illnesses such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Dr Bernard Hoffmann, head of the ear, nose and throat department at Healthpoint hospital in Abu Dhabi, says he sees a lot of cases. Patients often complain of a shortness of breath and after tests, are usually diagnosed with either an upper respiratory tract infection or asthma.

“Some of them have increased sensitivity to dust, or cold or dry air, or are very sensitive to smoke. I see a lot of asthma here in this region. This is related to the dust, I think, and the extensive use of air conditioning.”

The UAE University study cited “increased urbanisation, reliance on motorised transportation and traffic congestion, adverse weather conditions such as dust/sand storms, and the rapid expansion of the construction and manufacturing sectors emitting airborne pollutants”, for the high numbers of respiratory illness.

While there is little to be done about airborne particles that irritate the respiratory system or bring on an asthma attack, there are things people can do to minimise their risk.

“The most important thing is not to smoke,” says Hoffmann. “I’m still surprised how many patients suffer from asthma and admit they smoke. It’s shocking.”

His second preventive measure to mitigate the effects of bad air is regular maintenance of air-conditioning systems. “The filter should be clean and clear, otherwise the AC air will always expose you to the risk of having inflammation, and this inflammation can be the trigger for asthma.”

Air purifiers are often marketed as an effective way of removing impurities from the air, but Hoffmann says they too can pose a threat if not properly maintained.

“You can use them, but you must make sure they are clean, clear and they have fresh water. Otherwise it’s another source of germs, bacteria, fungi that can cause inflammation and aggravate the asthmatic symptoms.”

The most common respiratory illnesses here are asthma and chronic bronchitis and doctors have reported huge jumps in the number of patients they see during dust storms.

During a particularly bad storm in February last year, cases of asthma and other respiratory illnesses increased more than 25 per cent.

For those whose asthma is affected by the air quality, dust storms are not just annoying but can also be dangerous.

Liam Sanderson, 11, is left with little choice but to remain indoors when a storm hits. He moved here when he was 2 and was diagnosed with allergies and asthma three years later.

“It took us a long time to get it under control, in part because we didn’t know what the triggers were,” says his mum Celest, an American. Liam’s asthma is allergy related, so he is affected by smoke, pet hair and dust.

He uses a maintenance inhaler every morning and night, and whenever he has difficulty breathing.

One of the biggest hurdles for the Sandersons was finding a good doctor when awareness of complex respiratory illnesses was still somewhat lacking. Care in the emergency department can also be quite basic, says Celest, with a “one glove fits all” approach, but she says things are improving.

The weather is another concern. “When it’s windy or if there’s dust in the air, my son stays inside. He stays in at school in breaks and he stays inside at the house,” she says.

The Sandersons have installed two sets of filters on the air-conditioning units – which are regularly cleaned – in their Dubai Silicon Oasis villa and put a Hepa filter in Liam’s bedroom. The High-Efficiency Particulate Air filter works to remove tiny dust mites, pollen, pet dander and second-hand smoke from the air.

Other measures include avoiding certain fabrics that shed, predominantly artificial fibres and pressed wood, and using allergy-friendly paint that has fewer chemicals.

Hoffmann also recommends people have their car air conditioners regularly cleaned.

“The very, very small dust particles can go through the filter into the car itself. The dust filters should also be regularly maintained, whether it’s in the car or at home,” he says.

“The ultimate treatment would be to move to a coastal area where there’s no dust, because salt water and fresh air decrease nasal and pulmonary symptoms.”