Mother whose child died of asthma calls for education on air pollution

The mother of a girl who died following a chronic asthma attack has said she would have moved house immediately had she known the effects of dangerous levels of air pollution on her daughter’s health.

Nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah died in February 2013 after suffering numerous seizures and making almost 30 visits to hospital with breathing problems over the previous three years.

An inquest at Southwark Coroner’s Court is investigating whether dangerous levels of air pollution in the London Borough of Lewisham, where Ella lived with her family, may have contributed to her death.


Speaking at the inquest on Monday, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah said parents and the general public need better education about air pollution – which she branded “a public health emergency”. She said:

The only thing I could have done as her mother would have been to move (house). We literally would have just moved because we were desperate – anything that could have helped. Moving would have been the first thing to do.”

Ella Kissi-Debrah asthma attack
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah said there should be better education for parents and the general public about air pollution (Rosamund Kissi-Debrah /PA)

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She continued:

There seems to be a disconnect between medical and public health, so public health has all the information and medics don’t. They need to work together much more closely and it’s one of my aspirations – to get public health and medical doctors together, and I think things will be much better. Do I think the population at large knows enough? No, I do not. There’s a lot of education to be had.

“Looking in the wrong direction”

The inquest heard that special protocols had been put in place at the hospital so that Ella could receive treatment quickly whenever she was admitted.

She was taken to hospital in the early hours of February 15 2013 but died at 3.27am.

Kissi-Debrah, a teacher, said she and doctors had been “looking in the wrong direction” for the cause of her daughter’s breathing difficulties.

“We didn’t know because there was no rhyme or reason (for the episodes). She had them at home and she had them in hospital,” she told the inquest. “We were looking in completely the wrong direction.”

She added that although she is now aware of the many air pollution monitoring websites, she believes most parents are not:

There are 1.1 million children with asthma in this country, I am not convinced that if you did a survey with most of the parents that they would know about these websites. [The information] is there, but it is not getting to the people that need to be gotten to.

Ella Kissi-Debrah inquest
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah said measures introduced to improve air quality would have been too slow to help her daughter (Sam Tobin/PA)

Improvement is too slow

But Kissi-Debrah added that measures to improve air quality would have been too slow to help her daughter.

“People look at things in the long term, so they make decisions and say things like ‘Oh, this will improve the air in about six or 12 months’,” she said.

“What they do not realise is that if you have someone who is severely asthmatic, they do not have the time to wait.

“Someone like Ella, if she was alive now, she could not wait six or 12 months for initiatives to take hold.”

Healthy and active

She described her daughter as “the centre of our world”. Ella had been extremely active despite her asthma – enjoying sports and playing several musical instruments.

“She was extremely healthy at birth, there were no complications,” Kissi-Debrah added, “She was extremely active, so that by the age of six months she was already in a swimming pool and at nine months we were going to the local gymnastics club.”

The inquest continues.

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