The Dominion Post’s recent cover story (9 February) pays tribute to the tragic passing of beautiful young toddler Ataahua, who died of bronchiectasis just shy of three years of age. 

Bronchiectasis is a growing problem in New Zealand – between 2000 and 2013, hospitalisations for this disease increased by 30%. Deaths from bronchiectasis have doubled within in a decade, from 42 per year in 2000/01 to 84 in 2011. The disease affects an estimated 4,226 people across the country.

Bronchiectasis is a form of lung scarring and considered an old world disease which is common in our NZ children. It occurs with repeated chest infections in the community or even as a single severe infection requiring a hospital admission.

In children up to 14 years of age, there is one death every 18 months and 136 hospital admissions every year with this disease. This puts it on a similar scale to rheumatic fever, but with much less recognition. 

“As health care workers are often unaware of its prevalence, children can be diagnosed when severe disease is already established. A wet or mucusy sounding cough in children that lasts for several weeks is NOT normal. It suggests ongoing infection which may be doing permanent lung damage,” comments Dr Cass Byrnes from Auckland University.

Early diagnosis and treatment is vital in order to lessen the lung damage. “Children will often have symptoms for 2 years before the diagnosis is made which is far too long. We set the bar too high – children could be diagnosed earlier, get the appropriate treatment with the potential in childhood to actually reverse the disease, which is not possible in adults. We need to target and rescue this problem in NZ."

Parents and caregivers can look out for the disease by making themselves aware of the signs and symptoms. “Look out for persistent coughing that is recurrent and wet, recurrent respiratory infections, hospital admissions, recurrent antibiotic use of any type and school absenteeism," comments Dr Cass Byrnes.

If bronchiectasis has already been diagnosed support is available. The Bronchiectasis Foundation was formed on 7 April 2014. Camron Muriwai, Chairman of the Bronchiectasis Foundation says, “The first National Bronchiectasis Day will take place on 7 April 2016. This year Auckland and Northland will be celebrating with children and their families to bring about more education of the condition and raising awareness."

The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ works closely alongside the Bronchiectasis Foundation who supports families of those who have been diagnosed.  

The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ is urging the government to make respiratory disease a national health priority. As such, Te Hā Ora (Breath of Life), the National Respiratory Strategy has been released – in order for the health sector and government to collectively address New Zealand’s tragic respiratory rates.