African American Asthma Rates Are Disturbing

BY ON July 12, 2011

This piece was cross-posted at Proactive Black ParentingAsthma inhalers

A very informative exchange happened in the Mom’s Clean Air Force community this month. We held two events surrounding the topic, African American Asthma Rates and What Moms Can Do About It.  First there was a Blog Radio discussion moderated by Blogher’s Renee Ross, an African-American colleague of mine who is the Blogher Health editor and a long-time family blogger. Renee was joined by Vernice Miller-Travis, Vice Chair of the Maryland State Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities and Co-Founder West Harlem Environmental Action, and Dr. Sande Okelo, assistant professor of pulmonary medicine at John Hopkins Children’s Center. (You can listen to the podcast HERE).

Then this past Wednesday, we launched a Twitter Chat (under the hashtag #MCAF) that continued the conversation. I learned a bunch from these discussions (and not just that Blog Radio is awesome and Twitter rocks!) So I am sharing some of the valuable lessons I gleaned from both discussions here.

The asthma statistics for African Americans are scary and disturbing. They disclose an alarming truth—that Black children have asthma BIG TIME and the disease is wreaking havoc on their health and their entire families’ quality of life—

  • In 2009, about 2,380,000 African Americans reported that they currently have asthma.
  • African American women were 30% more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic White women, from 2001-2003.
  • In 2006, African Americans were three times more likely to die from asthma related causes than the White population.
  • From 2003-2005, African American children had a death rate 7 times that of non-Hispanic White children.
  • African Americans had asthma-related emergency room visits 4.5 times more often than Whites in 2004.
  • Black children have a 260% higher emergency department visit rate, a 250% higher hospitalization rate, and a 500% higher death rate from asthma, as compared with White children.
  • Children in poor families are more likely to ever have been diagnosed with asthma.
  • @CDCActEarly adds via Twitter Chat that As of 2009, 17% of all Black children were asthma sufferers.

Vernice Miller-Travis, opened the Blog Radio discussion with a discussion of her impressive career on the environmental front. She began in 1986 as a research assistant for the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Social Justice. She was involved in the landmark report, Toxic Waste and Race in the United State, which was the first report to document the relationship between race and the location of hazardous waste sites in or near where African-Americans (and other people of color) live. The report was the start of a very dynamic conversation and social movement in African-American communities surrounding the fact that polluters predominate in the places that African-Americans live regardless of income level, that they have a detrimental impact on our health, quality of life and our mortality.

In her work with the West Harlem Environmental Action Committee, she began by taking part in addressing the profound public health impacts (like frighteningly rampant occurrences of asthma and respiratory problems) of an irresponsible waste facility and the seven municipal bus depots located in the community which were major sources of fine particulate matter. Lots of research shows that if aspirated this kind of particulate matter can contribute to and actually cause asthma. Her research showed that in the late 1980’s and 90s, the Harlem communities of New York had the highest rate of asthma and infant mortality in the country. They were so astronomically high that without Harlem’s very elevated levels for asthma and mortality, the overall national rate for asthma and mortality would be dramatically lower.

The West Harlem Environmental Action Committee decided to approach the problem through land use and zoning. The significance of this approach is best illustrated by the fact that the offending sewage treatment plant was located directly under a large and popular city park.  Local policymakers had to be called to task for such land use decisions. The Committee also undertook extensive community education about the environment. And they initiated ground roots mobilization in the African-American and Latino community so that they could begin to put political pressure on local and state government to prioritize the health and safety of the community. The movement took time, says Miller-Travis, but it did happen to favorable results because pervasive asthma and infant mortality are easy issues for people to stand together and rally behind.

The essential issue, then and now, is that environmental offenders offend to a greater degree in communities of color—particularly African-Americans and Latino. And that because waste facilities, power plants and refineries are located where we live, they have  profoundly adverse impacts on our health and on mortality—heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, hyper-tension, sickle cell anemia (some sources of pollution increase the occurrence of sickling for sufferers, which everybody knows is of particular concern for African-American and Latino folks).  Travis-Miller says, “we are being beset with a number of health challenges that are undermining our quality of life because of environmental issues. We have to take those issues very seriously because our lives are depending on it.”

Dr. Sande Okelo, assistant professor of pulmonary medicine at John Hopkins Children’s Center, spoke about his recently published study, Do Asthma Morbidity Disparities Exist Between Black and White Children. The study is based on surveys conducted as part of an ongoing project at John Hopkins. And it found that in its pediatric population, African-American asthmatic children experienced twice the hospitalization and intensive care visits than their White counterparts, and far less lung capacity. According to Dr. Okelo, this indicates that Black children tend to come to treatment later and are less successful at managing their asthma. The reasons for these disparities, according to Dr.Okelo, are unclear.

On the matter of air pollution, Dr. Okelo suspected that African-American parents are likely not as aware of overall ozone triggers as they are of more conspicuous triggers, like cigarette smoke. One of the most common complaints Dr. Okelo says he gets from parents is that their children go a long time with symptoms before they are diagnosed with asthma and before they are given thorough explanations about the disease and treatment.

This disconnection in communication between medical personnel and African-American parents was also reflected in the discussion that took place during the MCAF Twitter Chat this week. There was concern and frustration expressed by physicians about their inability to effectively impress upon their African-American asthma patients and parents the importance of maintenance and on-going management. Nanette Nuessle (@NanN) said that in her Kansas pediatric practice, where she has been on the frontlines of asthma treatment for many years, her efforts to educate her African-American patients and parents have not been successful. And as the Twitter discussion swirled around socio-economic barriers to health care such as poverty, education and historical distrust by African-Americans of the medical establishment, we explored ways to make a change in the community with regard to better health maintenance of asthma and with regard to clean air activism.

The consensus among the Twitter participants, which included health care professionals, community activists, and parents, was that a full-on effort to educate and mobilize communities of color was necessary and urgent. We concluded that parents need to know the truth about asthma–that their children are a part of an epidemic that is extremely dangerous to their health –and the truth about the causes of the epidemic—including the presence of irresponsible and unethical treatment facilities, coal-fired power plants and refineries located in and near their homes. They need to know about (and be given tools to deal more optimally with) the disease and the polluters who are contributing to it. As Vernice Miller-Travis found in her years of community organizing, any real results will only come from direct communication and energy building around the specific issues bearing down on families– showing them how to plug into the political process as individuals and as a collective body.

Like Miller-Travis and Dr. Okelo, there are heros in the community mobilizing change; tending to the health of children; and educating parents. There are inspiring grassroot efforts like @ALifeAllah’s Hood Health Handbook, and @NanN’s years of dispensing information and health care one patient at a time! I learned this month that there are lots people working hard to make life better for children of color, and I am encouraged. But there is much work to do and time is of the essence.

Mom Clean Air Force has a new initiative—the Rapid Response Team– which is made up of concerned parent/activists. The team’s purpose is to let lawmakers know they are being closely watched, by sending prepared Tweets and Facebook posts about noteworthy actions or statements—both praiseworthy and egregious. The team will blast out the info within a 24 hour period. The Rapid Response Team is an easy and impactful way to get involved. Easy—Impactful—that’s a winning combination! So join us!

TOPICS: Activism, African-American Community, Asthma, Politics, Social Justice