Taking back our children’s health

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by Floyd J. Malveaux
For New Pittsburgh Courier

(NNPA)—More than 10 million children are sitting on the sidelines of kid-hood. Many have low expectations for everyday life. Their parents and caregivers—especially those in urban areas—watch as their children miss out on playing outside, struggle to get a good night sleep and fall behind at school. For these families, everyday routines are interrupted by doctor’s visits and trips to the E.R.

What is the culprit that slips into the lives of these families, that strips away the very makings of childhood, and leaves behind fear and anxiety in its wake?

You may be surprised to hear that it is childhood asthma. Most people think they know this disease, but they have no idea just how costly and life threatening it can be—especially when it comes to children. I urge you to take a second look at childhood asthma—a serious, complex chronic health issue that has an especially tight grip on “low-opportunity” neighborhoods, where incidence and death rates continue to climb. Too many children and parents are suffering. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Decades of research have shown us how to manage asthma, yet a new report from The George Washington University found that the African-American community is hit especially hard by unmanaged childhood asthma. The researchers found that African-American children are nearly nine times as likely as white children to die from asthma. And despite the fact that asthma is 60 percent higher in African-American children than white children, they spend far less on regular office visits and medications that might keep their asthma well-controlled.

What can we do to change this trend to help all children stay healthy?

The organization I lead, the Merck Childhood Asthma Network Inc., funds programs across the country designed to change the way a child’s asthma is managed on a daily basis. When children come to our programs they have been struggling with uncontrolled asthma and often times have been in the hospital because of life-threatening attacks. We have seen these families successfully gain control of asthma and keep attacks at bay, by following a few simple steps.

Because asthma can be triggered by substances in the environment, good asthma management starts at home. It is impossible to avoid all asthma triggers, especially viral infections. However, you can reduce your child’s exposure to allergens, things to which they are allergic, by keeping your house clean and as dust-free as possible. Vacuum regularly and remove items that might collect dust or trap allergens like stuffed animals, rugs or non-washable curtains. Irritants including perfume, aerosol sprays, which can also trigger an attack, should be avoided. Smoking should be confined to outdoors and away from a child with asthma.

Beyond making changes in the home, it is essential for caregivers to work with a health care provider, including an asthma specialist if necessary, to map out a plan for day-to-day management of their child’s asthma. Too often families treat asthma like the common cold, a minor episodic irritant rather than a serious disease that requires sustained care. When properly managed, asthma should rarely result in an attack.

If finding quality care seems out of reach, turn to the federally-funded community health centers in your community. These centers can help provide care for children with asthma, even those with no health insurance. Visit http://find­ahealthcenter.­hrsa.gov/ to find a health center near you. During your visit, ask the doctor to create an asthma action plan, a resource caregivers can use to help manage asthma.

Too many kids still live one breath away from another urgent visit to the E.R. or hospitalization, when they could be playing, attending school and doing everything other children can do. Let’s aim higher and address this disease as the serious health issue that it is. Let’s give all children and their caregivers a better quality of life.

(Floyd J. Malveaux, M.D., Ph.D. is executive director of the Merck Childhood Asthma Network, Inc. and dean emeritus of the Howard University College of Medicine.)

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