More than 2.4 million Ontarians — one in five — live with chronic lung disease. It comes as no surprise that respiratory diseases are the most common health conditions among children in our province. Coughs and colds are the most common reason for children to visit a doctor. Asthma is both the most common chronic disease and reason for children to be admitted to hospitals. 

Life in Ontario

Here in Ontario, we’re doing a lot of things right. The rate at which children with asthma get admitted to hospital is steadily falling and deaths from asthma are extremely rare. Key asthma medications are covered by health insurance plans, and by the provincial government for financially challenged families. The government also assists with the cost of many advanced therapies for lung disease, including home oxygen therapy, and breathing machines for children with sleep apnea or respiratory failure. 

However, there’s a lot more we can do. Modern asthma medications are so effective that most hospitalizations are now preventable. But, we need to do more to help doctors understand and adhere to the latest asthma research and treatment guidelines, and to educate families on how to use medications most effectively. The government could also make an important contribution by subsidizing the cost of simple “spacer” devices, which help puffer medications reach deep into children’s lungs. 

“Children are not only what they eat, but also what they breathe”

The rate of sleep apnea, a condition that is much more common in overweight children, is rising in parallel with the obesity epidemic. Ontario needs many more sleep laboratories and other facilities for diagnosing and treating this condition, which can cause learning and behavioral problems and affect long-term cardiovascular health.

Respiratory infections are also a huge challenge for children. Pneumonia and bronchiolitis (an infection of the very tiny airways in babies) are common reasons for children to be admitted to hospital. We need more public education campaigns about the importance of vaccinating children against influenza and pneumonia, as well as whooping cough and polio. 

External factors make a difference

Children are not only what they eat, but also what they breathe. Reducing air pollution, both outdoors and indoors, will mean fewer asthma attacks and respiratory infections.  Protecting children from cigarette smoke is also vital. 

First Nations children living on-reserve are a particularly vulnerable group in Ontario. They frequently live in houses that are overcrowded, need major repairs, have mould contamination, and lack adequate ventilation or access to clean water. All of this increases the rate of severe respiratory infection in First Nations children. 

Ultimately, Ontario needs a lung health framework to guide government strategies that promote lung health and public education, and support vital respiratory research. Our kids’ lungs deserve nothing less.