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Puerto Rican children have high asthma rates

Jaycco Paris of San Juan, 6, is one of thousands of children in Puerto Rico with asthma. Jaycco Paris of San Juan, 6, is one of thousands of children in Puerto Rico with asthma. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)
Associated Press / December 27, 2010

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Tens of thousands of children have asthma in Puerto Rico, which has one of the highest asthma prevalence rates in the world. And this year, the US territory has seen a jump in cases, which health officials suspect might be linked to the heavy rains that have unleashed millions of spores.

Puerto Rican children are nearly 300 percent more likely to have the respiratory ailment than white non-Hispanic children in the continental United States. The island, with a population of 4 million, has 2.5 times the death rate stemming from asthma as the mainland, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Puerto Ricans in the United States also have been hit hard, with an asthma attack rate 2.5 times higher than for whites.

Adding to the problem is that Puerto Rican children do not respond as well as those from other ethnic groups to the most-prescribed medication for asthmatics: albuterol, which comes in an inhaler used to relieve sudden attacks. As a result, several major pharmaceutical companies are working to create another medication, but they are still years away from doing so.

“What’s a challenge is that Puerto Ricans are not all the same,’’ said Dr. Esteban Gonzalez Burchard, director of the Center for Genes, Environments & Health at the University of California, San Francisco. They “are racially mixed.’’

No one knows for certain why Puerto Ricans suffer so much from asthma, despite decades of research.

Theories include volcanic ash that drifts in from nearby Montserrat, clouds of Sahara dust that blanket the city in the summer, and fungi that flourish in the tropical humidity.

Some researchers suspect poverty and the fact that tens of thousands of people live in dingy public housing projects with mice and cockroaches, which are known asthma triggers.

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