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High Asthma Rate In Puerto Ricans Remains A Mystery

 LOS ANGELES - The high rate of asthma in Puerto Rican children remains a perplexing medical mystery for researchers. According to studies, Puerto Rican children are 300 times more likely to suffer from the condition than white, non-Hispanic children in the United States. Furthermore, Puerto Rico has seen a recent jump in asthma cases. Health officials' suspect it might be linked to the heavy rains that have unleashed millions of spores into the atmosphere.

Puerto Rico is an island with a population of four million. The country already has 2.5 times the death rate stemming from asthma as the mainland, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Puerto Ricans who reside in the U.S. have also been hit hard by asthma, with an asthma attack rate 2.5 times higher than for whites.

What makes the situation even more difficult is the fact that Puerto Rican children do not respond as well as those from other ethnic groups to the number one medication prescribed to asthmatics, Albuterol. The medicine is commonly packaged in an inhaler used to relieve sudden attacks. Several major pharmaceutical companies are working to create another medication, but they are still years away from doing so.

"What's a challenge is that Puerto Ricans are not all the same," Dr. Esteban Gonzalez Burchard, director of the Center for Genes, Environments & Health at the University of California says. "(They) are racially mixed." Those with European ancestry are likely most at risk of developing asthma, he said.

Despite decades of research, no one knows for certain why Puerto Ricans suffer so much from asthma. Theories include volcanic ash that drifts in from nearby Montserrat, clouds of Sahara dust that blanket the city in the summer and fungi that flourish in the tropical humidity.

Some suggest that poverty and the fact that tens of thousands of people live in dingy public housing projects with mice and cockroaches - known asthma triggers.

"Asthma is huge in Puerto Rico," Gonzalez says. "Compared to other populations, it's extremely high."

Puerto Ricans, even when living in the same environmental conditions as other ethnic groups, still show higher rates of asthma, he said, which suggests that genes are at least partly to blame.


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