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Eczema in China: study finds breastfeeding reduces risk in children

Red skin, itchy and inflamed. Eczema can be a frustrating skin condition to live with for anyone, let alone young children. When it comes to eczema in China, rates of diagnosis of atopic dermatitis (AD) has been growing. The prevalence of cases in children aged 6 to 20 years was only 0.7% in 2000, however this has risen to 8.3% in children aged 3 to 6 years in Shanghai by 2012. Now, a recent study released last year indicates that the risk of children developing eczema may be linked to the length of time mothers spend breastfeeding.

This week’s article by Pacific Prime China takes a look at eczema in China, the breastfeeding report, and outlines what you might need to know about covering treatment for AD through health insurance.

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What is atopic dermatitis?

Eczema is actually a term for a number of different conditions, however atopic dermatitis is the most common. AD usually develops early in a person’s life, typically within the first six months of a baby’s life, and can be long-lasting, and even severe. The main causes of atopic dermatitis are not exactly known, however researchers believe that a combination of genetics and other factors are likely culprits. Having a parent with either AD, asthma or hay fever can mean that a child has a 50% chance of having at least one of these health issues.

Atopic dermatitis generally manifests itself in the form of red, itchy rashes on the cheeks, arms, and legs. Many sufferers will also have drier skin than normal, potentially due to a genetic mutation of a gene that’s responsible for creating filaggrin. This protein supports the body’s ability to produce a healthy, protective barrier on our skin that holds moisture in, and bacteria and viruses out. Without this, skin can be dry and more prone to infections.

The good news is that some children will grow out of suffering from AD and eczema. Some may only suffer minor flare ups as well. Unfortunately, there are common cases of children suffering severe bouts of AD, and many may carry this illness through to adulthood. An estimated 10% of people around the world are affected by AD during their lives, however the condition is absolutely not contagious at all.

What are other forms of eczema?

Just like AD, the other forms of eczema are all triggered by allergens or irritants interacting with the body’s immune system, causing inflammation of the skin. The other forms of eczema people can suffer include:

  • Contact dermatitis
  • Seborrheic dermatitis
  • Stasis dermatitis
  • Dyshidrotic eczema
  • Nummular eczema

As with all illnesses and conditions, it’s best to consult your doctor if you believe you or your children may be at risk of developing eczema conditions.

Eczema in China

Our earlier mentioned statistics were published in a 2016 biomedical research article, titled Prevalence and Clinical Features of Atopic Dermatitis in China. This cross-sectional study investigated the cases of outpatients with eczema or dermatitis across the country, totaling 8,758 cases. The results included a number of interesting points:

  • 78.4% of patients suffering AD had a history of allergic disease.
  • The top five common bodily areas where AD tends to be the most prominent are: elbows, knees, the front of the neck, upper limbs, and the face.
  • More than 50% of children with moderate-to-severe AD would develop allergic rhinitis and/or asthma later in life.
  • The study also proposed that geographic and economic factors may also play a part in the prevalence and severity of AD cases in China.

Where patients lived in China also had an impact on AD rates. Areas with warmer temperatures, higher sun exposure, and higher humidity were also associated with poor controls of the disease. As warm weather and humidity induces sweating, AD sufferers in such areas were more likely to experience itchiness and inflammation, leading to a higher risk of cases of scratched skin allowing in bacterial infections.

The economic factors highlighted in the study pointed to greater understanding of hygiene, higher levels of medical care, and better living standards in helping to reduce the severity of AD in southern China. The simple fact that more people own air conditioning units in their homes and at work mean that AD sufferers are less likely to sweat and irritate their skin by scratching or itching problem areas. When their eczema flared up, they had access to better care, and were educated more effectively to stop it happening again.

The link between breastfeeding and eczema

According to the Promotion of Breastfeeding Intervention Trial (PROBIT), reported on by China Daily, babies that are exclusively breastfed for a sustained period from birth were half as likely to develop eczema when they reach the age of 16. PROBIT looked at 17,046 Belarusian mothers and their babies between 1996 and 1997, and found a 54% reduction in the number of cases of eczema among teens whose mothers had breastfed them exclusively.

How is it that breastfeeding has such a significant impact? Researchers have, for many years, been investigating, and promoting breastfeeding as an important first choice mothers can make (if physically able) to give their children the best start in life. Studies have suggested that breastfed children are less likely to develop a host of health problems and diseases, including:

  • Diarrhea and vomiting bugs.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome.
  • Childhood leukemia.
  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • Obesity.
  • Health disease in adulthood.

PROBIT, as the latest study to add its support for breastfeeding, has again drawn focus on the widely held link between breast milk and improved infant immune systems. Breast milk has long been identified as containing a range of good nutrients that pass on antibodies, protect a baby’s own digestive system, and boost its thymus gland’s ability to produce white blood cells that help fight against infections.

As mentioned earlier, eczema and AD affect a person’s immune system, so having a healthy, and well developed immune system from birth is a significant benefit when it comes to preventing and reducing the risk of skin issues as children grow older.

a baby mobile sits in the foreground while a blurry mother breastfeeds her baby in the background, linking breast milk and eczema in china

Breastfeeding in China

Another 2016 study in China found that breastfeeding rates in the country are low. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, with children up to 6 months exclusively feeding on breast milk. In China, the rate of babies being exclusively fed breast milk up to 6 months old was only 20.8%, with an even lower 11.5% being breastfed up to 12 months.

Despite global recognition of the benefits of breastfeeding, researchers still needed to investigate why it was that mothers in China weren’t breastfeeding. The reasons in a 2015 study explain:

  • Perceived lack of milk supply: Some mothers in China were said to have experienced low milk supply, or insufficient breast milk to satisfy growing babies.
  • Pressure to return to work: Mothers requiring quick returns to employment conveyed difficulty in expressing milk at work, and the ease, and convenience of using powdered milk.
  • Social and family beliefs: Generational beliefs have held that breast milk may not fully satisfy growing babies, and many mothers admitted that their own mothers or mothers-in-law had advised a switch to powdered milk earlier for health and well being benefits.

  • Perceptions of breast milk vs infant formula: Another common belief held was that infant formula was seen as being “as good” or “better” than breastfeeding, with 43 out of 50 mothers surveyed believing this to be the case.

In terms of combating misinformation, the study also found that women were less likely to get advice on breastfeeding from hospital staff, and more likely to get their information from a friend or family member. With the advent of the internet and social media, mothers’ groups on QQ and WeChat were also significant sources of information regarding breastfeeding.

Supporting treatment for eczema in China with health insurance

Eczema diagnosis and treatment is usually determined by a dermatologist or other doctor. An appointment will usually see a physician check your child’s skin, talk about their symptoms, health history, and any family conditions you might have. If their AD or eczema case is mild, the only treatment you might need is to keep their skin clean and moisturized. In more severe cases, medicine can be prescribed. These can be in the form of:

  • Hydrocortisone
  • Antihistamines
  • Corticosteroids
  • Ultraviolet light therapy
  • Injectables
  • Prescription-strength moisturizers

Your doctor will decide upon the best course of action, as some of these approaches may only be applicable to adult AD and eczema sufferers. When it comes to medically required treatments, insurance can be a great way to help you meet those costs.

Newborn insurance

Generally offered as part of maternity coverage or an individual health plan, newborn insurance offers health benefits that are designed to support your baby in the event of a wide range of infant-specific issues. These include congenital birth defects, premature birth issues, and other inpatient visits that might be required. Such policies can also be extended to include outpatient visits, vaccinations, dental and vision, and more, supporting you in the event your newborn develops a case of child eczema in China.

Individual health insurance

If your child is older, securing their own individual health insurance plan might be worth considering. Having their own health policy early can ensure that any conditions that they develop as they grow, such as severe eczema, can be treated right away, and can prevent it from becoming an excluded pre-existing condition in the future. In addition to potentially covering treatment for eczema, individual health insurance in China can also include additional extras such as dental and vision, and worldwide coverage for those of you whose family’s travel frequently.

It is worth noting that not all plans may offer coverage for AD and eczema, so it’s important to understand a policy and its schedule of benefits before you commit to purchasing it for your child.

Employee benefits and group health plans for adults

If you’ve stumbled across this article as an adult with concerns about eczema in China, then it might be useful to know that many group health insurance plans are more lenient on pre-existing conditions. As group plans usually involve large numbers of insured members under one company policy, it becomes easier for insurers to spread risk across the whole group. As such, it may be possible that your employer-provided health insurance plan covers eczema treatments and medicines.

What about Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments for eczema?

It should come as no surprise that insurance plans in China do allow for coverage of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practises. What parents and individuals should know about TCM coverage is that it can often have different benefit levels, and rules regarding what can and can’t be claimed under your policy. There are studies into the success stories of TCM treating eczema in China, as well as into the ingredients and medicines used. So if using a traditional Chinese approach is something you prefer, check out the details in your health insurance policy.

Securing the right Chinese health insurance policy for your family’s health

Getting the right coverage can be hard, especially when there’s so many unknown conditions that can pop up without warning. Preventing babies developing eczema in China can be helped by a greater awareness of breastfeeding benefits, however it’s not a solid cure. Sometimes, genetics will simply force such an illness upon a poor child. When this happens, treatment might be a short-term or lifelong solution. Securing health insurance in China can better protect your loved ones in the event they are diagnosed with AD and eczema.

How do you find the coverage your infant or family needs? Partner with the most experienced insurance broker in the country. Pacific Prime China has almost two decades of knowledge and experience in delivering the right insurance solutions to protect against a wide range of diseases, illnesses, and accidents that can occur. Whether you’re concerned about eczema or other allergies developing in your child, our expert team can find an insurance plan that will protect them now, and in the future.

For a free quote, check out our online comparison tool, or contact our team to find out more.

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Disclaimer: Pacific Prime China solely represents, operates and manages locally regulated insurance products and services in the territory of PR China. Any references to Pacific Prime Global Company or Group, the international services, insurance products or otherwise stated written or verbally, is for introduction purposes about our overseas network only as each entity is fully independent.