Asthma in rural Australia: can we breathe a little easier?

Published 4 September 2020
Asthma puffer and flowering tree

While rural Australians are disproportionately affected by chronic disease this may not be the case with asthma, according to new research from Southern Cross University.

It’s spring; the weather is starting to warm up and flowers are beginning to bloom, but the uplifting sentiment this time of year often brings is not felt by everyone. Around one in five Australians are diagnosed with asthma, a condition that is typically worse in springtime, leaving many gasping for breath and requiring hospitalisation.

However, there may be some good news for those living in rural Australia.

“We have long known that people living in rural Australia have been disproportionately affected by chronic disease, however our research suggests this may not necessarily be the case with asthma,” said lead Associate Professor Matthew Leach from the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine at Southern Cross University.

Associate Professor Leach led one of the largest health surveys in rural South Australia, of which 3926 people participated. The study found the prevalence rate for diagnosed asthma to be 19% lower for people living in rural South Australia when compared to those living in urban South Australia.

“Comparative research has shown that 21% of those residing in and around Adelaide are living with asthma, yet only 17% of rural counterparts reported a diagnosis of asthma,” said Associate Professor Leach.

This result is consistent with findings from other studies but begs the question: why might people living in rural areas be less prone to developing asthma?

“There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that a rural upbringing may be somewhat protective against asthma.

“One school of thought is that increased exposure to allergens and animal and soil bacteria in rural settings may strengthen a child’s immune system, thus making them less susceptible to developing adult asthma – however, this idea is still being explored,” Associate Professor Leach said.

Although the news is positive for rural Australians, it may be too soon to breathe a sigh of relief, as health care access still remains a considerable problem for rural communities.

“Clinical guidelines recommend regular follow-up for people living with asthma to ensure they receive best-practice care; however, for people living in rural communities, access to primary care services remains an ongoing challenge,” said Associate Professor Leach.

While rural South Australians may be less prone to developing asthma, they may be more likely to have poorer health outcomes due to limited healthcare access, he said.

“This evidence suggests that by improving health care access in rural communities, regional South Australians may be able to breathe a little easier.”

Asthma Week 2020 is September 1 to 7.

Media contact: Caitlin Zillman, Marketing and Communications Manager at the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine +61 424 632 177 or caitlin.zillman@scu.edu.au