Toxic air triggers spurt in breathing ailments

KOLKATA: The spiralling pollution levels in Kolkata over the last three weeks have resulted in a sharp spurt in the number of patients suffering from respiratory illnesses. While the gradual temperature dip is a usual trigger at this time of the year, doctors have pointed out that the severity of the diseases have been much more this year which can be linked directly to the pollution rise. Number of and — the majority of whom are children and the elderly — seeking admission in hospitals has skyrocketed to an unprecedented level since mid-November, according to some private hospitals.

Belle Vue Clinic has eight COPD patients admitted which is higher than last year. Ruby General Hospital has 24 patients in the pulmonology department, including 16 severe cases, which is unprecedented. At Fortis Hospital, the number of respiratory illness patients had touched 40 in mid-November.

Doctors pointed out that the spurt was triggered by the Diwali pollution and has since remained unchanged. “Post-Diwali, children have been streaming in with breathing problems, wheeze, cough and pneumonia. The main reason for this rise in incidence is air pollution. The sharp spurt in the number of patients suggests an increasingly strong evidence that air pollution is associated with increase in the risk of death and chronic disease in children, apart from worsening pregnancy outcomes and aggravating existing illnesses,” said paediatrician and NICU in-charge at Fortis Hospital Sumita Saha.

“In addition, children spend more time outdoors where the concentrations of pollution from traffic, power plants and other combustion sources are generally higher. Air pollution, particularly traffic-related pollution and fireworks triggers asthma and atopy,” added Saha. While COPD is an irreversible narrowing of the airway passages, in asthma the narrowing can be reversed.

The severity of the disease has indeed been rising every year and has reached an unprecedented level this time, said AMRI Hospital consultant Debashish Saha. “Vehicular pollution and fireworks could be the reasons. It is evident from the severity of COPD and asthma cases that pollutants like sulphur-dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, silica and asbestos are substantially higher than ever before. While the immediate impact has been a rise in the number of COPD and asthma patients, in the long run these could cause lung cancer,” said Saha.

Asthma and allergy due to pollution have reached an alarming level with almost one out of every four kids affected by these, claimed paediatrician Santanu Ray. “Both the number of patients and the severity of the ailments have gone up. This is evident from the number of hospitalizations this year which is at least 40% higher,” said Ray.

The situation could worsen as the month progresses, said Fortis Hospital consultant Angshuman Mukherjee. “As the temperature drops, the cases could get more severe. This year we had an early spurt in November. There is thankfully a lull now but we expect another surge,” he said.
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