VAMC Survey Found High Rates of Asthma, Respiratory Symptoms Among Staff

By Brenda L. Mooney

MILWAUKEE— A survey at a VAMC recorded the prevalence of current diagnosed asthma at 17.6% but also found that nearly half of the healthcare workers reported some asthma-like symptoms. [ See Table ]

Researchers from the Respiratory Health Division, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Morgantown, WV, and the Clement J. Zablocki VAMC in Milwaukee noted that rate is considerably higher than asthma prevalence in Wisconsin or nationally.

Other research has found increased risk of respiratory disorders among healthcare workers, according to an article in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health.1 Earlier findings associated with the research were presented at last year’s American Thoracic Society meeting.2

For the study, the investigators sought to estimate the prevalence of current asthma and asthmalike symptoms and their association with workplace exposures and tasks among employees at one VA medical facility.

To do that, they conducted a survey from a sample of workers at the Milwaukee VAMC, collecting information on respiratory health and work characteristics, including tasks performed, products used and exposures. The questionnaires were collected during 2012-2014. Based on the responses, researchers evaluated associations of asthma and asthmalike symptoms with cleaning and disinfecting tasks and products. Also taken into account were exposure to dampness and molds, as well as construction dust.

“We observed elevated prevalence of current asthma among the VA healthcare workers compared to the U.S. general and working adult populations,” the study authors noted. “Asthma and asthma-like symptoms were significantly associated with mold, dampness, and construction material exposures; cleaning and disinfecting products; and cleaning or disinfecting tasks.”

In the earlier report presented at the ATS conference, study authors explained that the survey instrument included assessments of respiratory health, work characteristics (tasks), employment history and worker exposures. They sought information on prevalence of current physician-diagnosed asthma, based on two criteria: lifetime physician diagnosed asthma and positive response to at least one of the following: “Do you still have asthma?”, “Have you had an attack of asthma at any time in the last 12 months?” or “Are you currently taking any medications for asthma?”

The survey also included self-reports of asthmalike symptoms in the past 12 months, including wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, asthma attack and taking asthma medications.

The conference presentation noted that self-reported current asthma in their survey, 18.2%, was higher than population estimates in Wisconsin, 10.4%, or national estimates, 9%.

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