Physical or sexual abuse doubles the odds that a child – from Puerto Rico, at least – will suffer from asthma.
Puerto Ricans have the highest prevalence of asthma of any ethnic group in the US and the highest death rates from the illness.
“They have the most asthma and the most trouble from asthma,” says Juan CeledÃ³n, at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Previous studies have shown that violence and stress make asthma worse. CeledÃ³n and his colleagues wanted to know to what extent this was a contributing factor to asthma rates in Puerto Ricans, so they interviewed 1213 children and their primary caregivers living in either San Juan or Caguas.
They inquired about large stress factors, such as a death in the family or a divorce, and also about exposure to community violence, such as being shot at, arrested, chased by a gang or the victim of a break-in.
Parents and children were interviewed separately about abuse, which included being hit by an object, punched and being asked to touch the private parts of adults. Some 6% were classed as having experienced some form of abuse.
Data on whether the children had ever suffered from asthma, took medication for it, or had seen a doctor in the past 12 months for the condition, were also collected.
The researchers found that children with a history of physical or sexual abuse were twice as likely to have asthma. Other stress factors were not statistically significant. They speculate that the stress of abuse may alter the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to a constriction of the airways.
CeledÃ³n emphasises that it is important to study Hispanic groups separately: while Puerto Ricans have the country’s highest lifetime prevalence for asthma, at over 25%, Mexicans have the lowest, at just 10.