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A new study conducted by Sensitive Choice, a National Asthma Council programme, has found 41% of Otago residents would automatically assume someone coughing or sneezing near them may have Covid-19.
The research also shows a large proportion of the population live with asthma and allergies such as hay fever, which can produce similar symptoms to Covid - particularly with high levels of pollen around.
According to the study, the number of those who say they were living with asthma in Otago was 7%.
According to latest government data, one in eight New Zealanders take medication for asthma and more than one person dies every week as a result of the disease. Asthma mortality rates are more than three times higher for those of Maori and Pasifika ethnicities.
Massey University epidemiologist and Professor of Public Health Jeroen Douwes said the results of the study were concerning and better awareness of the burden of asthma and more support for those living with the condition was necessary to help reduce the number of hospitalisations and largely preventable loss of life each year.
Prof Douwes said there was not enough research available yet to fully understand the relationship between asthma and Covid-19, or whether the complications from the disease may be more significant, but many Kiwis living with asthma would have elevated stress levels as a result of the uncertainty.
"Any scenario where a person with asthma may experience stigma or discrimination as a result of experiencing common symptoms of the disease puts them at unnecessary risk.
“In the current pandemic environment, this could occur in the workplace or at school where the standard practice for those who are coughing or sneezing is to send them home.''
It was important to show empathy to those living with asthma and allergies, he said.
"The last thing we need is an environment where a person with asthma feels they should be self-conscious when they should be seeking help or delays seeing their GP.''
The Sensitive Choice study found more than half of New Zealanders live with some form of allergy.
An intolerance to pollen is the most common affecting more than a quarter (27%) of the adult population. Dust and dust mites are the next most common allergen, while the incidence of food allergies is present in 13% of respondents.
Allergies to medicines, insect stings, mould, animal hair were noted by between 10%-7% of adults while an allergic reaction to latex made up a further 2%.
Among those Kiwis living with asthma or allergies, many had experienced a range of emotions which in some cases had been heightened by the current pandemic, the study found.
For one in ten (10%) of those living with asthma or allergies, they feel embarrassed about their health condition while others said they feel depressed (9%), disadvantaged (9%), or sad (8%).
Prof Douwes says in New Zealand the burden of asthma is weighted disproportionately higher towards children from some ethnicities and future research into reducing the burden of asthma in New Zealand should be concentrated to help solve specific issues.
“There are still children, predominantly Maori and Pasifika children, in this country that end up in hospital multiple times a year and are not being prescribed the standard treatment.
“Another issue we are facing is one of compliance - learning how to help those who have been prescribed medicines for the treatment of asthma and use them according to their GP’s direction.''
• Do you suffer from asthma or allergies? Are you worried about discrimination due to their similarities with Covid-19 symptoms? Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would be happy to talk to a reporter and have your photo taken.