Wednesday, August 12, 1998 Published at 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
Asthma pill 'could improve children's health'
Experts say Singulair could help in the long-term control of asthma
Children's health experts have welcomed a new asthma pill which could make it easier for young people to live normal lives.
Paediatricians meeting at the 12th International Congress of Paediatrics in Amsterdam this week hailed Merck & Co's montelukast sodium drug, which is sold under the name of Singulair.
Speakers said the drug could cut down the amount of times asthmatics have to use inhalers, but inhalers will still be needed for emergencies.
This would be of particular benefit to children who often find inhalers, the traditional way asthma sufferers get their medication, difficult to handle and embarrassing.
A once a day pill, which can be taken by children as young as six, won approval from the US Food and Drug Administration in February.
Merck is now holding trials to see if the drug can be used on children as young as two.
Around 50% of asthmatics develop symptoms before they are one and 90% show symptoms by the age of five.
Jeff Williams, of Glan Clwyd District General Hospital in Wales, estimates that half of all children fail to use their inhalers properly, particularly those who have to use them regularly.
Singulair is one of a number of lukast products on the market. They block leukotrienes, the substances that cause inflammation and muscle spasms in asthma sufferers.
Two other anti-leukotriene drugs have been released recently. They are Accolate and Zyflo.
John Warner, professor of child health at the University of Southampton, called the drug "a major advance".
The number of asthma cases is rising fast in the UK: in 1973, 4% of the population were diagnosed as asthmatic; in 1996 the figure was 21%.
There are differing opinions on the reasons for the increase, but some experts blame the fact that the UK is becoming more affluent.
They say children are not as exposed to bugs as they were in the past because their houses are kept cleaner. This reduces their resistance to infection.
The main symptoms are coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath. Some patients will have tightness in the chest, and others have no symptoms at all.
It can also be brought on by exercise. Experts says up to 20% of Olympic athletes have exercise-induced asthma.
It can be made worse by irritants such as tobacco smoke, pollution, ozone, infectious agents such as bacteria and viruses and other allergens like the house dust mite.