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Northeast Ohio health advocates, agencies warn of asthma-related risks in minorities

Community members at a meeting to educate people on asthma-related health threats.
Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition
The Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition has partnered with Northeast Ohio health agencies on a series of community meetings to educate people on asthma-related health threats.

Local health organizations are holding a series of meetings with Black community members to educate them on the health risks related to asthma.

Doing so is important because Black people are disproportionately impacted by asthma, according to Yvonka Hall, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition.

"Racial disparities in health outcomes for asthma remain very high in Ohio," she said. "We want to make sure that we get the community the right information that they need, so that we can make sure that we can lessen the emergency department visits, because that was one of the things that was very alarming in Ohio."

Black adults and children have higher rates of asthma-related emergency room visits, hospitalizations and mortality than their white counterparts, according to the Ohio Hospital Association.

Black adults in Ohio are hospitalized and visit emergency rooms for asthma at five times the rate of white adults. They also see mortality rates three times as high. Meanwhile, Black children in Ohio experience asthma-related hospitalization at more than six times the rate of white children and emergency department visits at more than five times the rate. Black children also have asthma-related mortality rates more than four times higher than white children.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that can affect all age groups and includes symptoms like coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness, according to Dr. Prakash Ganesh, medical director for Cuyahoga County Board of Health.

Asthma can also cause harm that is not just physical in nature, he noted.

"You see higher frequency of absences — absences from work or school," said Ganesh, who is also a staff physician at Neighborhood Family Practice on Cleveland's West Side. "There is this factor of cost associated with how much money is lost due to the disease because people are not able to go to work or stay in school, but also higher degree [of] emergency room visits."

"One of the things that we looked at is the absentee rate for children in our schools and the number one reason for absenteeism is actually asthma related," Hall agreed.

Several factors can lead to asthma, including family history, generalized allergies, previous respiratory tract infections, occupational exposures to air-borne contaminants, smoking and obesity, Ganesh added.

The Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, as well as representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio Department of Health's Bureau of Child and Family Health, and city and county health departments have held luncheons in counties throughout the region, Hall said.

"The counties that we have been focusing on are Ashtabula, Columbiana, Cuyahoga, Erie, Franklin, Hamilton, Lorain, Lucas, Mahoning, Montgomery and Summit, which all have high concentrations of minority community, a lot of industry areas, which means that they also have some larger incidents of people that have asthma attacks," she said.

Organizers are now turning their sights on a series of meetings with Black youth. Meetings are expected to take place in Cuyahoga, Lorain and Mahoning counties, Hall said.

The intent of these meetings is "teaching them about the triggers, education, talking with them about self-management, talking with them about smoking, which is a big deal, of our young people who are using these vaping devices," she said, adding that providing this information is important all kids.

"Not only are they impacted, but their friends are impacted," she said. "And so what happens with youth if your friend is having an asthma attack and you're with them? Knowing the triggers and knowing the things that are going on [can] hopefully help them to save someone else's life."

It's also important for doctors to work side-by-side with patients to address asthma, Ganesh said.

"I want my patients to be active partners," he said, adding it's not just patients knowing about triggers and what medicine to take, but also having an action plan for any asthma attacks.

An action plan is "a kind of a guide for patients to follow at home or at school, wherever they may be, to act if they are having asthma exacerbation or start wheezing or showing symptoms," Ganesh said. "The teachers or the patient themselves have a plan of what they can do to take the appropriate measures to control that exacerbation, but also if needed, to go to the emergency room. It gives specific guidance to the family or the patient or or the school."

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.