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Asthma Grips Black Community

Kelley Weiss
Four year old Quran Taylor at his school, Faxon Montessori. He was diagnosed with asthma as a toddler.

By Kelley Weiss


Kansas City, MO – Local health experts say asthma rates for African-American kids in Kansas City are at epidemic levels. Black children are much more likely to go to the emergency room and be hospitalized for the respiratory disease. Researchers, clergy and families are alarmed by the high rates and are searching for the causes and how to fix it. KCUR's Kelley Weiss reports.

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On a Sunday morning in late April Rev. Shaun Hayes, of St. Mark's church, takes the pulpit. About fifty people sharply dressed in colorful suits and hats listen carefully to the Reverend's message: it's about minority health issues. He asks everyone in the church with heart disease to raise their hands and then the same for diabetes. Several people are seated holding both arms up. He then says, 'Anyone who has or knows someone in their family with asthma please stand up.' Almost everyone in the church comes to their feet. Hayes gives some statistics of asthma in the black community.

Shaun Hayes: "African American children four years or younger are six times as likely to die than whites of this disease. Every major urban city, most of the places where we are, there is always some factory right next to us destroying the ozone and destroying us."

After the service Paulette Carter watches her four-year-old boy Quran Taylor run around the church with the other kids. Her son has asthma and she says it seems like more black children are getting it.

Paulette Carter: "We have other children in the family that have also been diagnosed as having asthma and we're like where is this coming from?"

Dr. Jay Portnoy, an asthma specialist at Children's Mercy Hospital, says there is not a clear reason why asthma hits minority communities harder. He says poor air quality - indoor and outdoor - low income status and possibly genetics can cause the disease.

Dr. Jay Portnoy: "So, it's really an epidemic that disproportionately affects people of low socio-economic status and people of color."

Portnoy says nationally about one in ten people have asthma. In Kansas City more kids have the respiratory disease than ever before. But, he says in some minority populations it can be one in five people who have it. In the black community, he says an asthma diagnosis can carry serious implications.

Dr. Jay Portnoy: "To them it's almost a death sentence because they know individuals in their family or community that have died from asthma, they know people who have been unable to participate in activities or had to go to the hospital for their asthma."

At Quran's school, Faxon Montessori, on a rainy afternoon the students have recess in the gym. In Quran's class three or four other black students also have asthma. But, Byron Cubit, a school nurse at Faxon, says sometimes the kids don't get gym time every day. He says lack of exercise might be one reason why more, younger students have asthma today.

Byron Cubit: "Back then you got a whole lot of exercise which expands your lung capacity."

Michael Brown, a high school junior in Lee's Summit, uses an asthma action plan, including medicines, to control his attacks now. Although, when he was a little boy his mother, Leslie Anderson, says she and Michael were visiting the hospital too often.

Leslie Anderson: "We did have a lot of emergency room visits. He probably done had over 50 visits."

Anderson says it might be a hereditary disease in her family. Brown has five relatives with asthma.

Kevin Kennedy, an environmental health specialist at Children's Mercy Hospital, says often low-income black families living in the inner city are near factories and roadways with high emission levels. He says most people spend 90 percent of their time indoors. Mold and dust in homes can trigger asthma attacks, he says, as well as pets, smoking and perfumes or cleaning supplies. But, Kennedy says, it can be expensive to remove indoor irritants that flare up a child's asthma.

Kevin Kennedy: "We can identify it, we can offer them all the education we want we can offer them all the advice and actions and things they should take but if they don't have the financial resources to make those changes then we're not doing a lot to help them."

Kennedy says repairs to a home can range from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand. The more expensive remedies can be out of reach for some families and that is why he is working on securing $1 million dollars for a "Healthy Homes" grant program partnering with community organizations and schools to assist these families.

Back at St. Mark's Church Rev. Shaun Hayes, of the Black Health Care Coalition, says education efforts about asthma need to increase as well as funding. He paces up and down the aisles of the black congregation encouraging them to make healthy choices and find the answer for why asthma is plaguing their community.

Kelley Weiss, KCUR News.

Funding for health care coverage on KCUR has been provided by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

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