From the Journals

Children with uncontrolled asthma at higher risk of being bullied



The risk of bullying and teasing is higher in children and young people with poorer asthma control, an international study reported. Published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, the Room to Breathe survey of 943 children in six countries found 9.9% had experienced asthma-related bullying or teasing (n = 93).

Dr. Will Carroll is Paediatric Respiratory Service at Staffordshire Children’s Hospital at Royal Stoke, Stoke-on-Trent, England

Dr. Will Carroll

Children with well-controlled disease, however, were less likely to report being victimized by asthma-related bullying/teasing: odds ratio, 0.51; 95% confidence interval, 0.23-0.84; P = .006).

“It’s important for pediatricians to recognize that children and young people with asthma commonly report bullying or teasing as a result of their condition,” Will Carroll, MD, of the Paediatric Respiratory Service at Staffordshire Children’s Hospital at Royal Stoke, Stoke-on-Trent, England, told this news organization. “Pediatricians should talk to children themselves with asthma about this and not just their parents, and efforts should be made to improve asthma control whenever possible.”

Though common and potentially long-lasting in its effects, bullying is rarely addressed by health care professionals, the U.K. authors said.

But things may differ in the United States. According to Mark Welles, MD, a pediatrician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center at Northwell Health in Queen’s, N.Y., and regional cochair of the American Academy of Pediatrics antibullying committee, young doctors here are trained to ask about bullying when seeing a child, no matter what the reason for the visit. “It’s important to build a rapport with the child, and you need to ask about the disease they may have but also generally ask, ‘How are things at school? Is everyone nice to you?’ It is becoming more common practice to ask this,” said Dr. Welles, who was not involved with the U.K. research.

a pediatrician at Cohen Children's Medical Center at Northwell Health in Queen's, N.Y., and regional cochair of the American Academy of Pediatrics antibullying committee

Dr. Mark Welles

The U.K. study drew on unpublished data from the Room to Breathe survey conducted by Dr. Carroll’s group during 2008-2009 in Canada, the United Kingdom, Greece, Hungary, South Africa, and the Netherlands. Only 358 of 930 (38.5%) children were found to be well controlled according to current Global Initiative for Asthma symptom-control criteria.

The analysis also found a highly significant association (P < .0001) between Childhood Asthma Control Test (C-ACT) score and reported bullying/teasing, with bullied children having lower scores. C-ACT–defined controlled asthma scores of 20 or higher were significantly associated with a lower risk of bullying (OR, 0.46; 95% CI, 0.28-0.76; P = .001).

In other study findings, harassment was more common in children whose asthma was serious enough to entail activity restriction (OR, 1.74; 95% CI, 1.11-2.75; P = .010) and who described their asthma as “bad” (OR, 3.02; 95% CI, 1.86-4.85; P < .001), as well as those whose parents reported ongoing asthma-related health worries (OR, 1.64; 95% CI, 1.04-2.58; P = .024).

“When a child is clearly different from others, such as having bad asthma or being limited in activities due to asthma, they stand out more and are more frequently bullied,” said Tracy Evian Waasdorp, PhD, MSEd, director of research for school-based bullying and social-emotional learning at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and also not a participant in the U.K. study.

director of research for school-based bullying and social-emotional learning at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Dr. Tracy Evian Waasdorp

In contrast to the 10% bullying rate in Dr. Carroll’s study, Dr. Waasdorp referred to a CHOP analysis of more than 64,000 youth from a Northeastern state in which those with asthma were 40% more likely to be victims of in-person bullying and 70% were more likely to be cyberbullied than youth without asthma. “Having a medical condition can therefore put you at risk of being bullied regardless of what country you live in,” she said.

CHOP policy encourages practitioners to routinely ask about bullying and to provide handouts and resources for parents, she added.

Interestingly, the U.K. investigators found that open public use of spacers was not associated with asthma-related bullying, nor was parental worry at diagnosis or parental concern about steroid use.

But according to Dr. Welles, “Kids may be using the inhaler in front of other kids, and they may be embarrassed and not want to be seen as different. So they may not use the inhaler when needed for gym class or sports, forcing them to sit out and then potentially be bullied again. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Previous research has identified the bullying and teasing of children with food allergies.

Behaviors have included allergy-specific harassment such as smearing peanut butter on a youngster’s forehead or putting peanut butter cookie crumbs in a child’s lunch box.

“In our survey we asked the question ‘Have you been teased or bullied because of your asthma?’ but we didn’t ask what form this took,” Dr. Carroll said. “But we were surprised at just how many children said yes. It’s time for more research, I think.”

“There are never enough studies around this,” added Dr. Welles. “Bullying, whether because of asthma or otherwise, has the potential for long-term effects well into adulthood.”

In the meantime, asthma consultations should incorporate specific questions about bullying. They should also be child focused in order to gain a representative appreciation of asthma control and its effect on the child’s life.

“As pediatricians, we need to be continuously supporting parents and find the help they need to address any mental health issues,” Dr. Welles said. “Every pediatrician and parent needs to be aware and recognize when something is different in their child’s life. Please don’t ignore it.”

Dr. Waasdorp stressed that school and other communities should be aware that children with asthma may be at increased risk for aggression and harmful interactions related to their asthma. “Programming to reduce bullying should focus broadly on shifting the climate so that bullying is not perceived to be normative and on improving ‘upstander,’ or positive bystander, responses.” she said.

The original survey was funded by Nycomed (Zurich). No additional funding was requested for the current analysis. Dr. Carroll reported personal fees from GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, and Trudell Medical International outside the submitted work. Dr. Welles and Dr. Waasdorp disclosed no competing interests relevant to their comments.

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