EU researchers to study asthma at Olympics

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A pan-European study will examine the prevalence of asthma among European athletes set to take part in the Beijing Olympics and assess the impact of the local environment and air quality on the disease.

GA²LEN, an EU research consortium on allergic diseases, announced on World Asthma Day (6 May) that it will follow the athletes selected for the Beijing Olympic Games to assess the prevalence of asthma and allergies among top athletes in summer sports. Earlier studies show that some 20% of summer sport athletes have asthma. 

Runners, swimmers, and cyclists in particular have shown high susceptibility up to now. According to GA²LEN, these endurance sports could produce higher levels of asthma in China “due to the prolonged periods with highly increased ventilation and the duration of high level physical activity” together with environmental factors, such as chlorine in swimming water or polluted air for cyclists and runners. 

The study is the first of its kind in Europe and has been designed in agreement with the Norwegian National Olympic Committee to follow athletes and provide optimal care if needed. The scientists also expect to learn more about the effects of air quality and pollution on the athletes and better understand exercise-induced asthma. 

Around 2,000 athletes will be followed before, during and after the Olympics with regular clinical examinations measuring the functioning of their lungs, bronchial responsiveness and asthma symptoms. Researchers hope that clinical follow-ups will also assess the impact of the local environment on potential symptoms.

"As with all Olympic Games, we want to ensure that air quality risks are mitigated and that measures are put into place to protect the health of the athletes," said Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the Medical Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has been studying the air quality in Beijing in view of the August 2008 Games. 

Indeed, Ljungqvist believes Commission's findings indicate that "for outdoor endurance events that include minimum one hour continuous physical efforts at high level – urban road cycling, mountain bike, marathon, marathon swimming, triathlon and road walk - there may be some risk". 

"Analysis of air quality data to date indicates that the health of the vast majority of athletes competing in the 2008 Olympic Games will not be impaired [...] It may be that some events will not be conducted under optimal conditions - which is the reality of sports competitions - and that we may not see records broken in Beijing," added Ljungqvist.

The IOC has indicated that some of the Olympics outdoor events could be postponed if the daily monitoring of air quality and weather conditions shows poor conditions. 

According to the Global Allergy and Asthma European Network (GA²LEN), allergic diseases such as asthma, hay fever and eczema are the most common chronic diseases in Europe and their prevalence is growing. 

Around 30 million Europeans already have asthma. No cure currently exists and according to the European Federation of Allergy and Airway Diseases Patients Association (EFA), the total cost of the disease in Europe is estimated to be €17.7billion per year. 

EU action on allergy and asthma has mainly concentrated on evaluating the impact of health policy interventions to reduce asthma risk factors and develop indicators to monitor asthma in the EU. GA²LEN is an EU-funded network coordinating European research on asthma and allergy.

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LIFE TACKLE is co-funded by the LIFE Environmental Governance and Information Programme of the European Union - Project Number LIFE17 GIE/IT/000611



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