Very few asthma patients on the mainland receive the globally accepted standard treatment because of poor awareness in rural clinics and misunderstanding among urban parents, experts said ahead of World Asthma Day today.
Dr Wen Mingchun, president of the Shandong Weifang Asthma Hospital and adjunct associate professor at the New York-based Mount Sinai School of Medicine, estimated less than 5 per cent of mainland patients received the standard treatment - inhaled glucocorticoids.
A survey 11 years ago found only 2 per cent of mainland asthma patients used the treatment, recommended by the Global Initiative for Asthma, a World Health Organisation affiliate.
It is believed the mainland has about 25 million asthma patients, roughly 2 per cent of the total population. Half are children.
Wen said most medical staff at grass-roots hospitals had not heard of the standard treatment, which was adopted by mainland health authorities in 1997, three years after the WHO promoted it globally.
Instead, they continued to use the decades-old practice of administering the glucocorticoids - a kind of steroid hormone - through injection or orally, Wen said.
'Their method is dangerous for people's health,' he said. 'The most common side effect is that it will cause patients to become reliant on the hormone and then easily develop problems such as obesity, diabetes and endocrine dyscrasia. For children, high volumes of hormone will affect their growth.'
Wen said patients who inhaled the drug were only given doses of 0.25 milligrams each time, far less than in the traditional methods.
In major cities most doctors were familiar with the recommended inhalant treatment, but parents were wary of the word 'hormone' and preferred other options, using anti-inflammatory drugs. Many patients also thought that inhalant treatment was too expensive, Wen said.
'We see many patients don't follow their doctor's prescription strictly and once they show any sign of improvement they will stop taking the [inhaled] drugs,' he said.
The survey in 2000, carried out by state health authorities, found 1.5 per cent of children under the age of 15 had asthma, up from 0.9 per cent of 1990. Results of the most recent survey, launched by the China Asthma Alliance - a doctors' non-government organisation - last year, have yet to be announced.
But Professor Wan Huanying, an asthma specialist from the Shanghai Ruijin Hospital and a member of the alliance's expert committee, said the mainland's asthma rate had surged in the past decade, especially among children.
'It is in line with the general trend around the world,' Wan said. 'Asthma's growth is perhaps mainly due to worsening environmental pollution, global warming, the fast rhythm of life in cities and other factors,' Wan said.
The alliance's director, Dr Lin Jiangtao, told Sina.com.cn that the asthma rate on the mainland had probably risen 50 per cent since 2000, based on initial survey results in Liaoning , Shanghai and Beijing.
Experts have also found growing numbers of 'occupational asthma' patients - workers who develop the illness because of their jobs - although they only comprised a small percentage of the mainland's asthma patients. They usually worked in construction and the carmaking and mining industries.
The mainland is believed to have about 25 million asthma patients
The proportion estimated to be receiving the recommended treatment, inhaled steroids, is: 5%
The percentage by which the number of asthma patients is believed to have grown in the past decade: 50%