Actress Florence Masebe wants more awareness around asthma
Asthma an undiagnosed epidemic among children in our polluted cities
Florence Masebe has starred in Muvhango, Scandal! and 7de Laan, but her celebrity status was no help when a life-threatening asthma attack left her in intensive care earlier this year.
Masebe grew up with asthma, and a new research paper has revealed the growing burden of the disease among South African children as pollution builds up in rapidly growing cities.
"I used to cough all the time as a child," Masebe told the Sunday Times this week, "but it went undiagnosed, so all people saw was the symptom, which was me coughing, but they didn't realise I was running out of breath. And the more I coughed, the more my airways closed up. But I didn't even know there was something called asthma."
As a child, her elder sister would often have to sleep on her knees with her head on a bed so that Masebe could fall asleep upright on her sister's back. If she lay down, the attacks would come.
Even today, on the set of her next series, she has to make sure there is no wet paint. And if a colleague smokes near her on a break, she is at risk of an attack.
According to the lead author of the paper in the South African Medical Journal, Professor Refiloe Masekela of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, "asthma has shown an increasing prevalence in urban and rural populations of South Africa".
A major concern is that "almost half of children in urban communities experience severe asthma symptoms, and many asthmatics lack a formal diagnosis and thus access to treatment".Exposure to tobacco smoke and living in highly polluted areas increase the severity of wheezing in children, but parents are often oblivious to the underlying causes.
"What I find dangerous is that everybody tries to wish or pray asthma away," said Masebe. "But it has to be diagnosed and treated. Your inhaler should not be seen as an inconvenience but a lifesaver, and you have to have one wherever you go."
Retha Smit, a mother in Johannesburg, experienced the panic asthma can cause when a child suffers the first attack. Late last year, she said, "out of nowhere, my daughter of six had an asthma attack". Not knowing what the problem was, her own panic probably exacerbated the situation. The following morning she felt "drained, helpless" and terrified it would happen again.
According to the research, 10% of children aged six to seven in Africa have asthma (slightly below the global average); among 13- and 14-year-olds, the rate is 15% (slightly above the global average).
A Duke University, US, study found that symptoms in children aged two to five were worse if the child was overweight. Lead researcher Jason Lang said: "Obesity can add five weeks of asthma symptoms per year in preschoolers. Inhalers work for all preschoolers, but are less beneficial for those who stay heavy in weight as they age."
And if your child is diagnosed with asthma, his or her diet may need to change. Research by the European Lung Foundation, just published in the European Respiratory Journal, found that "people who eat a healthy diet experience fewer asthma symptoms and better control of their condition".
The researchers found that "greater consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole-grain cereals" had better outcomes for asthmatics than eating lots of meat, salt and sugar.