Ten-year-old Faatima Muhammad has been to the emergency room so many times for her asthma that her family has lost count. It started with a bad cold and cough. The cold went away but the cough remained.
“I could see her laboring to breathe. Every breath became an effort. We rushed her to the emergency room,” said Aisha Muhammad.
Inner city children and asthma seem to go hand in hand. Minus a diagnosis, regular health care or the appropriate medication for treatment, it’s the wheezing, the shortness of breath and chest pain that leads many to call 911. Asthma is one of the most common reasons for childhood emergency room visits.
“This disease is common for people living near inter state highways, oil refineries and manufacturing plants,” explained Dr. Jewel Crawford, chair of the Environmental Health and Bioterrorism Task Force of the National Medical Association.
“The high levels of smog and even indoor pollution such as second hand smoke and fireplaces contribute to the alarming rates of asthma in the Black community,” she told The Final Call.
More than 17 million Americans have asthma, a chronic inflammation of lung airways characterized by wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Approximately 80 percent of all asthma in children and 50 percent of asthma in adults is caused by allergies. Birch and grass pollens are significant causes of allergy misery in the United States.
The government plans new clinical trials to identify promising new asthma medicines. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has awarded a six-year, $55.8 million contract to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to establish a nationwide research network with the goal of reducing the severity of asthma and preventing the disease in inner city children, a group that suffers disproportionately from the disease.
“Inadequate access to health care and the best available asthma treatments is one of the reasons for higher rates of asthma and asthma-related deaths in inner city children,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
The research network, known as the Inner-City Asthma Consortium, will conduct clinical trials to evaluate the effectiveness of immune-based asthma treatments in inner city children.
The effectiveness of available asthma treatments may also be tested to make sure they are put to best use in this population.
“We’ve done so many different things to try and control Faatima’s asthma. We changed her diet. I found out that asthma attacks are precipitated by too much mucous in the system. Other illnesses can also trigger asthma attacks. We work to keep her as healthy as we can,” said Mrs. Muhammad.
But sometimes, when least expected, the asthma strikes.
“My heart feels like it’s about to run out of my body,” explains Faatima. She would ask her mother, “Why is this happening to me?”
“It can be very scary for the parents and the child. Both wondering what will happen and when it will go away,” said Aisha Muhammad.
The clinical trials hope to alleviate some of that anxiety. The consortium will likely investigate possible genetic predispositions to asthma and the biological mechanisms underlying development of the disease.
The clinical trials will occur at eight sites across the country, Boston University, Boston, Mass.; Children’s Memorial Hospital, Chicago, Ill.; Howard University, Washington, D.C.; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.; Mt. Sinai Medical Center, New York, N.Y.; the National Jewish Medical Center, Denver; Colo.; the University of Arizona, Tucson, Ariz., and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
“The researchers and institutions in this network are the cream of the crop of asthma investigators in this country,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “This program combines the skills of investigators experienced in working with inner city children with asthma, the availability of a pediatric population that may benefit greatly from improved therapy, and the talents of many basic immunologists and clinical researchers,” he said.
Dr. Crawford warns action is needed alongside the research. “We need to clean up our communities. Seventy-five percent of hazardous waste dumps are near Black communities. That’s why we suffer worse than others. It’s environmental racism,” she said.
The government’s new project will give an additional $14 million over seven years to Rho Federal Systems Division, Inc., in Chapel Hill, N.C. This group will collect and analyze the clinical trial data as well as assist with design of the trials and training and monitoring of site personnel.
Many of the investigators and institutions in the consortium also participate in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases National Cooperative Inner-City Asthma Studies. Launched in 1991, the network has developed several successful “interventions,” public education and outreach methods to reduce the severity of asthma in inner city children, officials said.