From Maine’s Sun Journal:

Brystal doesn’t know exactly what asthma is, but she knows, “I can’t breathe.”

This personable little girl has been hospitalized at least a dozen times to treat her lung disease, the first time when she was five months old.

She was so sick in infancy, wheezing and gasping for air, that her family thought she might die several times during one particular month-long stay at Central Maine Medical Center.

Instead, with careful attention to treatment, she has thrived.

And, according to her mother, Loretta Pinkham, “She keeps busy no matter how miserable she feels.”

Last year, when Brystal was hospitalized, Loretta remembers her daughter saying, “I’m sorry I’m sick, Momma.”

It breaks her heart, Loretta said, seeing her daughter “struggling and there’s nothing I can do to make this better … until the meds kick in.”

“She could grow out of it,” Loretta said. “There’s a chance she could get worse. We don’t know at this point.”

*     *     *

Brystal, who lives with her parents and older sister Brianna Jordan in Poland, is one of an estimated 25,877 Maine children living with asthma, and is among the most seriously ill who account for an estimated 2,562 emergency-room visits and 414 hospital stays each year.

In recent years, the number of people here afflicted with asthma has increased.

Last year, the number of adults in Maine living with asthma was 106,273, with the highest rates of disease in Cumberland, York, Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin counties.

In 2000, the asthma rate in Maine was 7.3 percent of the population. By 2005, that figure had grown to 8 percent, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The asthma rate in Maine now stands at 10.8 percent, which is the third-highest rate in the country and more than two points higher than the U.S. average. Oregon has the highest rate, followed by Arizona.

In Maine, the rate among women is 13.4 percent; the rate for men is 8 percent. And, according to DHHS, children have higher prevalence rates and higher rates of emergency department visits and hospitalizations than adults.

Every year, according to DHHS, half of all asthma patients suffer an asthma attack, which happens when bronchial muscles tighten suddenly in response to an irritant, such as pollen, smoke, pollution, temperature or exercise. When that happens, bronchial airways swell, which limits airflow and induces wheezing, rapid breathing and coughing. Left untreated, a severe attack can result in death as a person’s oxygen supply is strapped.

Dr. Andrew Carey of the Adult and Pediatric Asthma and Allergy Treatment Center in Lewiston is Brystal’s pulmonologist. He has been in practice for 19 years and says he’s seeing more asthma cases now than ever before.

Dr. Neil Duval, managing physician at Central Maine Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine in Lewiston, is also seeing an increase in the number of adult asthma patients.

In practice for the past two decades, Duval said, “The numbers have been climbing back as far as I can recall.” There are a number of reasons for it, he said.

One is that doctors are increasingly recognizing symptoms and diagnosing the disease but, he said, “Even if you account for that, there is a definite rise in the incidence of asthma, as well as the prevalence.”

In April, a coalition of Health Care Without Harm, the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and the National Association of School Nurses issued a report about what researchers called “the staggering human and financial toll of asthma in Maine,” and the likelihood that the toll would increase if Congress does not act to update the Clean Air Act.

The report, “The Economic Affliction of Asthma and Risks of Blocking Air Pollution Safeguards,” outlines the cost of asthma across the country, estimating that the “direct costs of treating Maine’s worsening asthma epidemic” already exceed $265 million for medical treatment. Millions more are spent in indirect costs, such as lost productivity at work, missed school days and premature death.