Asthma fears stop parents breathing easy

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I shrieked as the newsreader's words sank in. Alone in a hotel room, a six-hour flight from home, I froze and waited for the voice coming out of the TV to name the suburb.

Please, please God don't let him say Lane Cove. The thud of my racing heart was all I could hear during the agonising 30 seconds it took for the voice to say ''St Ives''.

A dear little eight-year-old boy died from an asthma attack in St Ives. Just up the road. It wasn't my Daniel, also 8, also a north shore primary school boy. Thank God. I felt sick with relief. But oh, those poor, poor parents. Just like us. The mum and dad of an asthmatic.

Still shaking and with a heavy heart I called home, desperate to hear my little man say ''hi mum''.

Asthma deaths in children are rare - our respiratory paediatric specialist Hugh Allen told me that to his knowledge this latest tragedy was the second in two years. But he said it is that small statistic that gives rise to the biggest risk of all, complacency.

He said many parents don't recognise the seriousness of their child's condition or that asthma can reveal itself in more ways than a wheeze. Nor do they understand the difference between a mild, medium or severe attack.

Severe asthma came into our lives when our son was 16 months old. I was lucky. I knew what it was because both my siblings had suffered from it as children. But many parents have never been exposed to it and might think a night-time cough is just a night-time cough.

I've lost count of how many times we've called an ambulance on the strength of that cough. We've held Daniel's hand and kissed his forehead in the high-dependency unit at Royal North Shore Hospital many times and been grateful when doctors declared him well enough to be admitted to the ward, out of danger once more.

When he was four, we left Sydney. A winter in the warm climate of tropical north Queensland gave him a break from being sick.

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Many other times we were sent home without being admitted but one thing's for sure: watching your child gasp for air never gets easier. Each time is a desperate, emotional nightmare. The words ''I want to go home, mummy'' a stab in our helpless hearts.

Why this child, on so many preventive drugs, including daily steroids, is still felled by the disease is a mystery. But, after more than six years, we know the the symptoms to take seriously, we know what to do.

But what about young, after school care workers? Other mums who volunteer to help out on excursions? Admin staff who help out on sports carnival days? All could easily find themselves looking after one of the 15 per cent of Australian children who have asthma. How are they to recognise the symptoms that separate mild from severe, let alone know what to do?

To my mind, there is only one message: call an ambulance.

''A lot of asthma deaths are preventable,'' Allen says, ''because people don't use their preventive medicine and because they don't recognise their asthma is deteriorating and they use more and more Ventolin and don't seek medical help … Any child on two to three-hourly Ventolin, I say, should be in hospital''.

''This tragedy is a warning sign for parents that if their child has asthma they need to be regularly reviewed,'' he says.

''If a child requires Ventolin more than twice a day at childcare then the family should be contacted. When there is a full-blown attack they should call an ambulance, then the family.

''While you are waiting for the ambulance, deliver more Ventolin every four to five minutes until help arrives. Ideally … there needs to be a person trained in asthma care on each shift of after school care.''

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