Study a 'game-changer' for treating Kiwi asthma sufferers

A New Zealand-led study is potentially a "game-changer" for treating asthma patients. (File photo).
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A New Zealand-led study is potentially a "game-changer" for treating asthma patients. (File photo).

Asthma affects more than 500,000 Kiwis, but a groundbreaking New Zealand-led study could be about to change the way patients with the respiratory illness are treated.

The international study conducted by the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand (MRINZ) is expected to make waves across the world.

It found that a simplified, single-combination inhaler treatment more than halves the risk of severe asthma attacks in people, compared to commonly prescribed treatments.

Asthma is when the airways of the lungs tighten or partially close up which can make it hard to breathe. People with asthma often have symptoms of wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in their chest, and a possible cough. 

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Currently, most adults with mild asthma are given two different inhaler medications; a preventer and a reliever.

The preventer is an inhaled corticosteroid which is taken twice a day. The reliever is an inhaled bronchodilator which is taken whenever needed to relieve asthma symptoms, such as wheezing.

The study found that the risk of severe asthma attacks was reduced by 60 per cent when participants used a single, combined preventer-reliever inhaler.

The New Zealand-led study is being praised as a "great piece of work". (File photo).
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The New Zealand-led study is being praised as a "great piece of work". (File photo).

Study author and MRINZ director professor Richard Beasley said the findings were exciting and had "the potential to be a game-changer in the way doctors treat mild asthma".

"The results provide new evidence supporting recent major changes in the management approach recommended in international asthma treatment guidelines," he said. 

THE STUDY

More than 670 people around the globe with mild asthma took part in the study's trial - 82 per cent were from New Zealand. 

Participants had only been taking reliever medication before they started the study.  

They were placed into three groups; one third used a reliever inhaler for 12 months whenever they had symptoms. 

Another third used both a preventer inhaler twice daily and a separate reliever inhaler whenever they had symptoms. 

The final group used a single combined preventer-reliever inhaler whenever they had symptoms. 

The study showed that the risk of an asthma attack was reduced by about half for those who used the preventer-reliever inhaler.

The study's results showed the combination preventer-reliever group's risk of an asthma attack was reduced by 60 per cent compared to those who just used a reliever alone.

The single combination approach was also shown to have a 56 per cent reduction in risk for those who used both medications separately.

"The trial shows for the first time that when patients take just a single combined preventer-reliever inhaler whenever needed to relieve symptoms, they do a lot better than the current recommended treatment of a regular preventer inhaler taken twice daily plus a reliever inhaler whenever needed to relieve symptoms," Beasley said.

The Medical Director of the NZ Asthma and Respiratory Foundation Dr Stuart Jones said Beasley and his team should be congratulated on "this great piece of work".

"For those with mild asthma, implementation of the study's findings will lead to a reduction in exacerbations, which means less time feeling unwell and more time doing what you enjoy in life, all while using inhaled steroids sparingly."

The study's findings will be incorporated into the foundation's adult asthma guidelines, which are due to be updated in early 2020. 

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Monday. 

ASTHMA IN NZ

In New Zealand, more than 597,000 people take medication for asthma, the NZ Asthma and Respiratory Foundation website states.

There is no cure for asthma, however it can be managed. For children, asthma is one of the most common causes of hospital admissions.

In 2015, 87 people died from asthma in New Zealand.

Respiratory diseases, including bronchiectasis and pneumonia, costs New Zealand more than $7 billion each year. The cost of asthma to the nation is more than $1b. 

Respiratory disease also accounts for one in ten of all hospital stays.

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