Reporter Anthony Shadid’s Death Highlights Asthma Dangers

Feb 17, 2012 2:20pm

Asthma experts responding to the death of New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid say his death is a sad reminder of the potentially serious nature of his condition.

The 43-year-old journalist’s death, apparently the result of a severe asthma attack, occurred while he was on assignment in Syria. Times photographer Tyler Hicks, who was with Shadid at the time and tried to revive his colleague, said Shadid had already had a smaller asthma attack days before his death as the pair accompanied smugglers from Syria to Turkey. On the day of his death, Shadid collapsed, Hicks told the Times, and soon lost consciousness. Hicks said Shadid’s breathing was faint and shallow before he died.

Shadid’s father, Buddy Shadid, told the Associated Press that he believes his son’s allergy to horses triggered an allergic reaction that led to the asthma attack. He told the AP that his son had lived with asthma all his life and had his medications with him at the time.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America issued a statement following the news that said the organization “is deeply saddened to learn of the death of Anthony Shadid due to asthma.

“Our thoughts are with his family, friends, colleagues and readers worldwide who will miss the clear, calm and truthful voice of his reporting,” the statement reads. “This tragedy is a sad reminder that there is still no cure for asthma.”

About 34.1 million Americans have been diagnosed with asthma by a health professional during their lifetimes, according to statistics from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. And Dr. Harold Nelson, a professor of medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver,  said roughly 3,600 people die each year in the United States from asthma.

“Fortunately, this is down from a peak, some 15 years ago, of about 5,600,” Nelson said in an email, noting that the use of inhaled corticosteroids that reduce the likelihood of a severe, life-threatening attack. Despite this advance, he said, dangers still persist  for many.

“Individuals with asthma often underestimate the severity of their condition and often rely on ‘rescue medicine’ such as an albuterol inhaler to control their symptoms, he said. “These people are at increased risk of a severe and even fatal attack when they encounter ‘triggers’ for their asthma.”

The remoteness of Shadid’s location and the nature of his assignment may have also made management of his condition more difficult, doctors said.

“Being in a conflict zone, far from medical care, it is possible that Mr. Shadid focused on things other than his personal health,” said Dr. Sally Wenzel, director of the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute at UPMC, in an email to ABC News. “Often that may mean forgetting to take critical asthma medications that prevent severe asthma attacks, like inhaled corticosteroids.”

Doctors said that though Shadid’s circumstances may have made it difficult for him to ward off an asthma attack, most who live with asthma can take steps to protect themselves.

“Most deaths from asthma are preventable,” said Dr. Miles Weinberger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Iowa. “A study on asthma deaths from the New England Journal of Medicine several years ago found that most were from what could be called ‘too little care too late’ — that is, there was sufficient time for intervention to have prevented the progression of an asthma exacerbation to a fatal conclusion.”

Though details have yet to emerge to confirm that Shadid’s death was indeed a result of an asthma attack, asthma doctors said that the sad story can serve as an important reminder to those who live with the condition to take necessary steps to stay safe.

Dr. Clifford Bassett, medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of NY and an assistant clinical professor at the NYU School of Medicine, said those with the condition should have an “asthma action plan” to address any symptoms that could predict a serious attack.

“Fortunately, we are seeing a decrease in life threatening episodes of asthma over the past decade or so as a result of improved coordination in the evaluation and treatment of asthma,” Bassett said in an email to ABC News.

“Avoiding known triggers of your asthma when you can is also a good idea,” Wenzel said, “but when you can’t avoid them — as would seem to be the case here — making sure that you are taking your daily corticosteroid medications can still help prevent these types of disastrous attacks.

“Asthma still kills. And it often kills young people with incredible futures.  Awareness — and appropriate treatment — is critically important.”

The Associate Press contributed to this report.

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