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Thorax. 2001 May;56(5):406-11.

Continuing the debate about measuring asthma in population studies.

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  • 1Sydney University Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Clinical Epidemiology Unit, The Children's Hospital at Westmead, Westmead, NSW 2145, Australia.


The reasons for measuring atopy and airway hyperresponsiveness (AHR) and the methods of validating measurements of asthma in population studies continue to be debated. The debate has centred around standards against which to validate asthma measurements but the absence of a "gold standard" makes the criterion validation of measurements difficult. Questionnaires will always be useful but cannot be validated against a doctor diagnosis because of self-selection and recall biases. In practice, measurements should be selected on the merits of what they measure rather than being regarded as validated or non-validated alternatives. The measurement of AHR is invaluable because it is reliable, not influenced by variations in symptom perception or diagnostic trends, and is closely related to the underlying mechanisms of asthma. The value of AHR lies in its high specificity (rate of true negatives) and low sensitivity (rate of false positives) against asthma symptoms which gives additional information about symptomatic subjects. Atopy is also a useful test and, in quantifying its association with asthma, we should not place any currency on ecological evidence. Atopy is a strong risk factor for asthma in the presence of regionally specific allergens and ecological analyses that ignore these effects are diversionary rather than productive. For preventing asthma, we need to identify the group at greatest risk of developing it, measure the risk factors with precision, and develop interventions that are effective in changing environmental exposures and homogeneous outcomes. This is the only approach that has the potential to lead to significant public health benefits.

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