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Mr. Salmond: As the Minister knows, when people suffer from allergenic asthma, their allergies can change very quickly indeed. Is there a medical reason why sensitivity tests are no longer available on the NHS, or is it merely a matter of cost? I find it distressing that my young constituents do not have access to a simple test that I had access to in the 1960s, which was invaluable in stopping asthmatic attacks by allowing me to avoid the substances to which I was allergic. Why are not those simple tests available now, whereas they were available 30 years ago?
Ms Blears: I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and I was going to come to that. I was not aware that the tests were available in the 1960s, and I certainly do not know why they are no longer availablewhether the reason is cost or a technicality. I would have hoped that we could make clinical advances rather than moving in the opposite direction. I do not know whether these were good, clinically effective tests, so I shall explore the clinical basis for withdrawing them. I am happy to look further into the matter, not only for the hon. Gentleman but for the National Asthma Campaign, and I shall also respond to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Baillieston about the history of this matter.
As I was saying, the expert patients programme will help us to make big strides towards progress. I am delighted that the programme has 26 pilots on a range of conditions up and down the country. The Medway primary care trust has a pilot specifically on asthma. The area has a disproportionately high accident and emergency admission rate for asthma in childhood; far too many children have attacks and are admitted to A and E. Many of those admissions could be avoided through improved self-management by expert patients. The fact that Medway has a pilot on something that particularly affects the community is extremely encouraging. Evaluating the evidence from the pilot to see if the expert patient programme can reduce the crisis in asthma will be extremely interesting and valuable for the NHS.
Ms Blears: I am happy to say that extensive research is going on. The Medical Research Council is the main body carrying out research on the Government's behalf, but we also work closely with the National Asthma Campaign to look at why asthma is caused in the first place and to investigate links between air pollution, traffic pollution, the environment and asthma. The National Asthma Campaign is funded to the tune of £5 million a year to carry out research on the Government's behalf; it is innovative of the Government to use experts to conduct research in the field via that voluntary organisation. That is a priority for the Government, even though we have not had any breakthroughs on isolating the causes of asthma. Much of our attention has centred on alleviating people's symptoms, but research into causes is equally important and we want to try and achieve a clinical breakthrough.
Mr. Wray: Over the years, have Health Secretaries or Education Secretaries ever been in contact with Transport Secretaries? I read an important article in The Independent which said that most asthma cases are caused by exhaust fumes.
Ms Blears: That is a subject of ongoing dialogue. In 1995, a committee reported on the medical effects of air pollutants. There was little evidence that air pollution causes asthma, although it was accepted that exposure to air pollutants could worsen the symptoms of asthma. Again, the issue is about causes rather than the exacerbation of the disease, but we do not have strong
The national service framework for children will use asthma as an exemplar; it will not investigate specific diseases, but it has chosen to concentrate on asthma as an illustrative example. I reassure Members that right across the board in research