RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There is finally some good news about childhood asthma in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that asthma has stopped its decades-long rise among kids and may have even begun falling. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the details.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Asthma can be a terrible disease. Kids gasp for breath, race for their inhalers. Sometimes they end up in the hospital, sometimes even die. Lara Akinbami of the CDC has been watching asthma in kids for decades.
LARA AKINBAMI: Asthma had been dramatically increasing in the 1980s and 1990s, which is usually referred to as the asthma epidemic, where the asthma prevalence doubled among children.
STEIN: And it just kept going up year after year. There are lots of theories why - secondhand smoke, obesity, kids taking too many antibiotics. But no one really knew what was going on. Akinbami and her colleagues finally found a glimmer of hope when they analyzed the latest government data.
AKINBAMI: It appears that asthma has stopped increasing and has either leveled off or it may even be declining. And that decline was a big surprise 'cause we were expecting the increase to kind of continue. But in fact we saw the opposite.
STEIN: Now, the reason for the turnaround remains as mysterious as the rise. It could be kids aren't breathing as much secondhand smoke, aren't getting fatter. It could just be asthma's maxed out among kids. No one knows. But Stephen Teach of the Children's National Health System in Washington says it's good news.
STEPHEN TEACH: The bad things that happen to children with asthma cost our health care system a great deal. But more importantly, they result in a huge number of missed school days, sleepless nights, missed job opportunities for parents. It's an economic and a health care drag on our system and on the potential for children to develop.
STEIN: Teach says the asthma rate is still way too high. Nearly 10 percent of kids have asthma, and it's still going up for poor kids and hitting black kids the hardest.
TEACH: There are stark and dramatic disparities in the prevalence of the disease, but more importantly in the bad outcomes which affect those kids with the disease - emergency department visits rates. Hospitalizations remained much higher among minority urban children than their less-disadvantaged nonminority peers.
STEIN: So doctors are trying to find ways to turn that around, too. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.