Helping kids control their asthma

David Sterling, PhD

Tarrant County children are more than twice as likely to suffer from asthma as children in other parts of Texas, and UNT Health Science Center is doing something about it.

David Sterling, PhD, Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, is teaming with the Health Science Center’s Professional and Continuing Education (PACE) department to pilot a children’s asthma management program in two East Fort Worth schools this fall.

"Asthma is a growing national problem, contributing to more than 14 million lost school days a year across the U.S.," Sterling said. "It’s been well documented that children with asthma are absent more often, and excessive school absences are a strong predictor of disrupted learning and premature dropout rates."

Pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline and Boehringer Ingleheim are funding the project, in which the School of Public Health, PACE and the Fort Worth Independent School District will work with the school-based clinics at Eastern Hills Elementary and Forest Oak Middle schools to improve the way children’s asthma is managed in school and at home.

Sterling said asthma is the most common chronic childhood illness and the most prevalent cause of childhood disability. Of Tarrant County children ages 0-14, about 75,500 have asthma. By age 9, Sterling notes, 25 percent of the county’s children are diagnosed with asthma, with a disproportionate number of cases among the county’s African American children.

The Cook Children’s Health Care 2009 Community-wide Children’s Health Assessment & Planning Survey showed childhood asthma rates of about 18.6 percent in Tarrant County, roughly double the national average of 9 percent and Texas’ average of 8.8 percent.

This new initiative will focus on educating school-based health care providers, teachers and community-based primary care clinicians, as well as young patients, their parents and caregivers. Children will learn to manage their asthma to ultimately reduce school absences, asthma-related 911 calls from schools and resulting emergency visits, school clinic visits and hospital admissions or readmissions. The group hopes the pilot will grow into a self-sustaining program that can be rolled out throughout Fort Worth and other communities.

Asthma basics

This lung disease inflames and narrows the airways.

Symptoms:

  • wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing, often at night or early morning

Prevalence:

Asthma affects people of all ages but most often starts in childhood. More than 25 million people in the U.S. are known to have asthma, about 7 million of them children.

Cause:

The airways are tubes that carry air into and out of the lungs. Asthmatics have inflamed airways that are swollen and very sensitive. They tend to react strongly to certain inhaled substances.

When the airways react, the muscles around them tighten. This narrows the airways, causing less air to flow into the lungs. The swelling also can worsen, making the airways even narrower.

Cells in the airways might make more mucus than usual, further narrowing the airways.

This chain reaction can result in asthma symptoms.

–from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

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