Anthony Shadid dies in Syria: How common are deaths from asthma?

New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid died Thursday after suffering an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria.  He was 43 years old.

According to an Associated Press report, New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks, who was traveling with Shadid, said that thePulitzer Prize-winningreporter had also suffered a bout a week earlier. The attack Thursday was more severe: Shadid reportedly lost consciousness and collapsed.  His breathing became “very faint” and “very shallow,” Hicks said, and ceased completely after a few minutes.

Asthma, a condition that occurs when muscles around airways in the lungs tighten and cause breathing problems, is increasingly common in the U.S., affecting 18.7 million adults and 7 million children in 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. 

Deaths from the condition are “unusual but not unheard of,” said Dr. Steven Simons, a pulmonologist in Beverly Hills. In more than 30 years of treating patients with asthma, he said, only two of his patients had died of it.   

The CDC reports that 3,388 people died of asthma in 2009 — representing about 1 death per 100,000 people. To put that in perspective, close to 800,000 people died of cardiovascular disease that year and more than 500,000 died of cancer.

Fatal asthma occurs in two ways, Simons said.  In cases of what’s known as acute asphyxic asthma, people are completely normal one minute and suffer a life-threatening attack the next. 

More commonly, asthma patients suffer wheezing or shortness of breath, and time remains to treat them with bronchodilators, which open up the airways, and/or steroids. But if such patients are treated incompletely, Simons said, they may improve a little bit but still have underlying lung dysfunction that leaves them vulnerable to triggers such as allergies, emotional stress and respiratory irritants.

“One more factor can then tip them over to a life-threatening attack,” he said.

Simons said he suspected Shadid fell in the second category, especially since the journalist had suffered another recent attack. When patients suffer particularly severe asthma episodes, they may require hospitalization or even intubation to recover. 

“My bet is [Shadid] was in a place where he didn’t have access to anything but the medicines he had with him,” Simon said.

The CDC provides information about asthma on its website.

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