Soft drink bottles help beat asthma

A resourceful attitude and creative approach to the humble plastic soft drink bottle have produced a new device to help children with asthma inhale their medication.

Researchers at the University of Cape Town and the Red Cross Children’s hospital have designed a local, low cost version of the inhaler-spacer which has been welcomed by the World Health Organisation.

The device is used to help children breathe in and absorb their asthma medication from a standard asthma pump. Commercially available inhaler-spacers cost approximately R160 — which is simply too expensive for many families. But by using 500ml plastic soft drink bottles, paediatric pulmonologist (lung specialist) Dr Heather Zar and her team are able to produce local spacers at a cost of about R1.  

“In this case, cheaper is not inferior. Our clinical trials have showed that these bottles are as effective as the commercially available spacers for children with acute asthma,” says Dr Zar.

These plastic inhaler-spacers are now being used at the Red Cross Children’s hospital in Cape Town. Other primary health care facilities have also been making their own from a mould designed by the UCT researchers.  

The 500ml plastic bottle spacers will be part of the new national guidelines for the management of chronic childhood asthma which are being compiled by the Allergy Society of South Africa.  

“If the Department of Health would promote the manufacture and use of the spacer and be involved in its promotion, it would be wonderful,” says Zar.  

“The spacer should be on the essential drug list because it is essential equipment for any child with asthma. At present, there is no spacer on the essential drug list. You can’t provide good asthma care to children without a spacer. It’s as essential as the pump.”  

The new device is particularly good news given that asthma is on the increase, especially in developing countries such as South Africa where between 10 and 15% of children suffer from the illness.

The inhaler-spacer is essential because many children find it difficult to co-ordinate their breathing and depress the asthma pump in order to inhale the medication effectively. The device makes it possible for the patient to take the medication while breathing normally.

The results of Zar’s research were recently published in “The Lancet”, a world-renowned international journal. Dr Shamim Qazi of the World Health Organisation has already said that the World Health Organisation will recommend the use of this bottle spacer for children with asthma.

The University of Cape Town is exploring the option of patenting the device but as Zar points out, “the philosophy behind the research was to develop something freely available to all who need it.”

Sponsorship from Nampak and Cipla Medpro will soon enable the spacers to be mass-produced and distributed free of charge to health facilities throughout the Western Cape.

Asthma is an extremely common condition, especially in children and is on the increase in South Africa.

No one really knows why the numbers of asthma patients are rising, but western life-styles, diet, urbanisation and increased pollution levels are all thought to have something to do with it.

“Why prevalence is rising is a debatable issue,” says Zar. “But what’s striking is that there is an urban/rural difference with a much higher incidence in urban areas.”

Although potentially life-threatening, asthma is totally treatable. According to Zar, children with asthma should lead completely normal lives. “If their lives are in any way limited, there’s a problem with their treatment.” – health-e, online news agency

Asthma is an extremely common condition, especially in children, in which the airways of the lungs become inflamed, which interferes with normal breathing. The result is an inadequate oxygen supply to the body, which may prove fatal in some cases. Asthma medication, which opens up constricted airways, is usually administered in metered dose inhalers called asthma pumps, which look like small aerosol canisters with a mouthpiece. But many people, and especially young children, find it difficult to co-ordinate breathing in and pressing the device, especially during an acute asthma attack.


  • Health-e News

    Health-e News is South Africa's dedicated health news service and home to OurHealth citizen journalism. Follow us on Twitter @HealtheNews

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