Objective. The increase in asthma prevalence has been documented worldwide, affecting many races living in many different climates. Multiple studies have demonstrated that the most striking prevalence and morbidity of asthma in the United States has been in black children, but little research has determined the scale of the increase, or specifically when the disease became severe in this group. This study sought to determine exactly when the rise in asthma hospitalizations among black patients began and what the pattern of asthma hospitalizations has been in different races and age groups over a 40-year period in 1 urban area.

Methods. A retrospective chart review of discharges from the Medical University of South Carolina was conducted from 1956 to 1997. Charts with the primary discharge diagnosis of asthma were examined for discharge date, race, and age group (0- to 4-year-olds, 5- to 18-year-olds, 19- to 50-year-olds, ≥51-year-olds). The diagnostic codes used were based on the International Classification of Diseases (ICD)-6, 1956–1957; ICD-7, 1958–1967; ICD-8, 1968–1978; and ICD-9, 1979–1997. Over the period studied, this hospital was the primary inpatient provider for children in this area, and the only provider for uninsured children. Between 1960 and 1990, the racial makeup of the area remained stable, as did the percentage of blacks living at the poverty level. The raw number of asthma discharges, rate per 10 000 discharges of the same race, and rate per 100 000 population in Charleston County were tabulated for each age group and racial category.

Results. Over the time period examined, there has been a progressive increase in asthma hospitalizations in black individuals of all age groups and in whites under 18 years. The most striking increase has been in black children 0 to 18 years old (Figure). The increase either as raw values or as a rate per 100 000 began around 1970, and was linear. This increase in black children discharged with asthma as a rate per 100 000 population was 20-fold: the rate increased from 18 in 1970 to 370 in 1997. Asthma discharges as a rate per 10 000 black children discharged increased by 24-fold from 1960 to 1997. Total discharges from the hospital increased from 49 000 to 128 000 per year over this period. Blacks made up only 28% of discharges in 1957, but that proportion increased to 56% in 1960 and remained relatively stable over the following 35 years. The increase seen in white children 0 to 18 years of age as a rate per 100 000 population was 5-fold and began around 1980. Both increases seem to be consistent over the time period studied, and continued to 1997.

Conclusions. Among a predominantly poor black population living in a southern US city, there has been a steady increase in childhood asthma hospitalizations over the past 30 years. A significant although less dramatic rise has occurred in white children. Over this time period, although there have been many changes in lifestyle that could have contributed to this rise, there have been no major changes in housing conditions for poor patients. In addition, Medicaid coverage for children in South Carolina did not change significantly until 1999. The time course of these increases parallels increases reported in other Western populations, suggesting that there must be 1 or more common factors contributing to the rise. Many explanations have been offered for the changes in incidence and severity of asthma. The scale of the change, time course, and linearity of the increase in this study represent a challenge to many of the hypotheses proposed to explain this epidemic.

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