ASTHMA: On the Upswing in the State, but No One Knows Why
Although asthma is on the upswing nationwide, California has outstripped the rest of the nation, with a 75% increase over 20 years -- especially in Orange County, where the pediatric asthma rate is more than twice the national average. According to a recent study by county health officials, 18.5% of children have been diagnosed with the respiratory disease, compared with 7.5% nationwide; 9.1% of Orange County adults say they have the disease, compared with 5.7% in the U.S. overall. Doctors and health officials are at a loss to explain the county's higher incidence, and point to "heavy landscaping with shrubs and plants that flower year-round," or possibly just a higher awareness of asthma (Warren, Los Angeles Times, 5/23). The San Mateo County Times reports that doctors "find it hard to point fingers at causes because there are so many suspects: second-hand smoke, pollen, dust, mold, dampness, smog, a bad case of the flu. Most experts simply blame the increase on industrialization and its plethora of chemicals and byproducts." What is certain is that the disease disproportionately preys on the poor, due to "increased exposure to cockroach droppings, rat and mouse urine, dust and crowded living conditions." Pediatrician Dr. Michael Greenberg of the Fair Oaks Health Clinic in Redwood City said, "It's difficult to tease out the environmental factors from the socio-economic factors" (Sussman, 5/24). Poor children are also less likely to get "proper treatment for what is largely a treatable chronic illness." Low-income asthmatics are "seven times more likely than those with high incomes to report that their disease is having 'a very serious impact' on their lives." As Dr. Joseph Scherger of the University of California-Irvine College of Medicine puts it, "Asthma is a poster disease for the access-to-health-care problem we have in this country" (Los Angeles Times, 5/24).
Officials in San Mateo County are working with the Regional Asthma Management Program (RAMP) to develop "environmental solutions in communities and schools." And state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto) has introduced a bill "to set up a comprehensive statewide prevention and control program run by the state Department of Health Services." Sher said, "Despite all the information we now have at our disposal to address asthma, prevalence rates and deaths have increased, not decreased, over the last 20 years. SB 1111 is a wise investment in preventing asthma and helping people breathe easier." San Mateo County Chief Health Officer Scott Morrow said, "Anything that helps bring the numbers down, we support. We don't really know why it has become so much bigger, but it certainly has been a cause for concern" (San Mateo County Times, 5/24).