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Asthma serious problem in East Bay

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday May 08, 2002

One in 10 Alameda County residents suffered from asthma in the past year, well above the statewide average, according to a new study released Tuesday. 

The California Health Interview Survey, conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, the California Endowment and the California Department of Health Services, found that 10.1 percent of adults and children in Alameda County report experiencing asthma symptoms at least once a year, compared to 8.8 percent statewide. 

“That does seem striking to us,” said E. Richard Brown, director of the UCLA center and co-author of the study. 

Brown said there are no definitive explanations for the higher rate in Alameda County. But statewide, the study found that blacks and low-income adults are more likely to suffer from asthma.  

Dr. Poki Namkung, Berkeley’s director of public health, said a large African-American population and concentrations of poverty in Alameda County probably play a role in the higher-than-average rate. 


“Asthma clearly is a disease of poverty,” she said, suggesting that inadequate access to health care and poor living conditions play a role. 

Scientists do not know what causes asthma, but have identified several environmental “triggers” for attacks, including air pollutants, dust mites and cockroaches. 

Namkung pointed to a recent study of asthma hospitalization rates, by census tract, which indicates that West Berkeley residents have higher incidences of asthma than other Berkeleyans. Namkung said proximity to the highway, and vehicle pollutants, is partly to blame. 

The 2001 California Health Interview Survey found that, while 8.8 percent of Californians, or approximately 3 million adults and children reported experiencing asthma symptoms in the last year, a full 11.9 percent report that they have been diagnosed with asthma at some point in their lives. The nationwide average is 10.1 percent. 

The survey also found that African-Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives living in California reported that they had been diagnosed with asthma at much higher rates than whites, Latinos and Asian-Americans. 

Over 21 percent of African-American adults said they had been diagnosed, compared to 14.3 percent of whites, 11.7 percent of Asian-Americans and 9.7 percent of Latinos. 

The study also found that 136,000 adolescents, ages 12-17, who experienced asthma symptoms missed one or more days of school per month. 

The report called for expanded health care coverage to cope with asthma, warning that a lack of adequate management of the disease only leads to expensive emergency room visits. The study also called for improved surveillance of the disease on the state and local levels, and a concerted effort to reduce exposure to asthma triggers. 

The California Endowment, one of the study’s co-sponsors, officially launched its $12 million, three-year Community Action to Fight Asthma initiative Tuesday with the release of the survey. 

The Endowment is providing a $450,000 to twelve different projects around the state, including the Oakland/Berkeley Asthma Coalition based at the Ethnic Health Institute at Alta Bates-Summit Medical Center. 

The coalition plans to offer asthma education in the Berkeley and Oakland public schools and in Oakland public housing. Dr. Michael Lenoir, an Oakland allergist involved in the project, said education is a vital tool. 

“Most people suffer needlessly because they don’t know they can be better,” Lenoir said. 

Megan Webb, director of the Regional Asthma Management and Prevention Initiative in Berkeley, which is overseeing five local projects funded by The California Endowment, said the programs will also include removal of environmental triggers and attempts to shift the policies of local institutions to accommodate asthma sufferers. 

Changing a school’s schedule for mowing the lawn, for example, can have a marked effect, Webb said. 


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