Air pollution linked to surge in respiratory illness cases, says health minister

Air pollution has emerged as a significant factor contributing to the surge in respiratory illnesses, according to Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya. In a recent statement, the minister highlighted the concerning correlation between deteriorating air quality and the rise in cases of respiratory ailments. 

The National Programme on Climate Change and Human Health, initiated by the National Centre for Disease Control, has been actively conducting surveillance on acute respiratory illnesses. This surveillance is being carried out through sentinel surveillance sites established in approximately 80 hospitals across 18 states.

The primary objective of this surveillance is to closely monitor the trends of acute respiratory illnesses reported from sentinel hospitals in cities, in relation to the respective air quality levels. Mandaviya, addressing the Rajya Sabha, shared the preliminary findings from the collected data, stating, “Preliminary observations from such data suggest that there is an increase in respiratory illness cases during periods when air quality worsens.”

To facilitate this data collection, the ARI (Acute Respiratory Illness) digital surveillance data was launched in August 2023 via the Integrated Health Information portal. This comprehensive approach aims to enhance the understanding of the impact of air pollution on public health.

While it is widely known that air pollution is a major contributing factor to respiratory ailments and associated diseases, Mandaviya emphasized that other factors, such as diet, occupation, medical co-morbidity, immunity, and heredity, also play a role in the overall health of individuals, including their respiratory systems.

Responding to a question, Mandaviya asserted, “The association between air pollution and obstructive lung disease is well established.” This reaffirms the urgency to address and mitigate the detrimental effects of air pollution on public health.

In 2018, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) collaborated with the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and the Institute of Health Matrix and Evaluation (IHME) to conduct a comprehensive study titled “The impact of air pollution on deaths, disease burden, and life expectancy across India.” Additionally, the ICMR conducted a multi-site study to document the acute effects of increased air pollution on respiratory morbidity. This study involved patients attending emergency rooms at five different sites, including AIIMS, Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital, VP Chest Institute, and the National Institute of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases.

The analysis of this study revealed a notable increase in the number of patients seeking emergency care during periods of heightened pollution levels, with children exhibiting a more pronounced effect.

To combat this pressing issue, Minister Mandaviya outlined several steps that have been taken to address air pollution concerns. The government remains committed to implementing effective measures to reduce air pollution and protect public health.