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SA doctor's asthma spacer is a winner

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Cape Town - An invention using recycled plastic bottles to help young asthmatics breathe easier, has landed a Cape Town professor and paediatric pulmonologist an international award.

Heather Zar’s home-made asthma spacers (a specially designed plastic tube for use with a puffer inhaler) for patients at Red Cross Children’s Hospital earned her the World Lung Health award in recognition of her research work and innovations in improving child health.

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200514. Cape Town. Angelique Jordaan (right) demonstrates how to use the newly engineered inhaler made out of a coke bottle. Zar and her team pioneered the use of what others might think of as waste: an empty 500ml plastic cooldrink bottle. "It's a good example of using the sophisticated resources of an institution like this [UCT and the Red Cross Children's Hospital] to improve care, to do something that is low-cost and impactful on child health." Zar's team ran nuclear medicine scans on the bottles, to test how much medicine had been deposited in the lungs, as well as clinical studies in which its effectiveness in treating children was tested compared to other regular spacers. Picture Henk Kruger.

Zar is head of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at Red Cross and UCT.

Awarded the honour at the American Thoracic Society meeting in San Diego this week, Zar became the first African and the first paediatrician to receive it. While she had conducted numerous research projects, her innovation which included the use of plastic bottles as asthma spacers, was one of her projects that stood out.

After she took over the position as a medical officer at the children’s hospital, Zar said she witnessed the inadequate treatment that asthmatic children were given at the time, which was mostly drugs that had many side effects.

This was because asthma spacers were expensive. But using recycled plastic bottles, Zar made home-made spacers for the children to use.

Her work on developing strategies and improving child health, with a focus on respiratory illnesses such as childhood pneumonia, TB, HIV-related diseases and asthma is well documented in international medical journals. More recently, Zar’s focus has been on a major cohort study into pneumonia.

The R53 million study is tracking 500 newborns in the Drakenstein region in a bid to try to understand the causes of pneumonia, factors contributing to it and the impact of the disease on child health.

Zar described the latest award as a reflection of the work done by a team of people including colleagues.

“My hope is that it helps shine a spotlight on this relatively under-resourced area of research. Children are so seldom prioritised on the health agenda. There’s a lack of knowledge about the burden of childhood illnesses – even though children make up 37 percent of our population,” she said. - Cape Argus

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