Breathing Easier:
New Asthma Program Strives to Educate Families on How to Avoid Problems

By FRED ALVAREZ, LA Times Staff Writer, Monday, October 20, 1997

For Ventura mother Adela Hernandez, the scariest thing about asthma is how quickly it can strike. One minute, her 8-year-old daughter, Jeanette, can appear healthy, displaying no symptoms of the breathing disorder. The next minute the girl can find herself gasping for air, struggling with an attack so severe that she requires emergency room care. "It's very hard because she gets sick so often," Hernandez said. "It's hard to know what to do. There is a lot of information available about this problem that people don't know about."

Hernandez is among dozens of parents in Ventura and Oxnard taking part in a new education and prevention program aimed at teaching school-aged youngsters and their families how to head off asthma-related problems. Ventura County is one of six sites nationwide--and one of only two in California--selected to participate in the pilot program, called "Asthma Roadways: A Family Connection."

Although a number of community-based programs have been developed to combat asthma, the new one extends the battle lines to include education for family members and others who come into contact with asthmatic children.

"This is a big-time health problem," said Chris Landon, whose Ventura-based Landon Pediatric Foundation brought the program to the county. "But it's not just a problem for children, it's a problem for the entire family. Our goal is to help families get a step ahead of it."

Asthma is one of the leading reasons for school absences and a leading cause of childhood visits to the emergency room, Landon said. Last year, for example, the emergency room at Ventura County Medical Center treated 784 youngsters, ages 7 to 14, for asthma-related ailments. And one out of 10 of those children had to be admitted to the hospital. The total cost of caring for those youngsters was about $1.2 million, Landon said. He estimates that two-thirds of those hospital visits could have been avoided. And he said those costs would increase at least fivefold if other emergency rooms in the county were factored in.

"When we looked at why those cases were going to the emergency room we found no primary care physicians, no use of preventive medicines, no knowledge of what triggers asthma," Landon said. "It's not just here, it's everywhere. We want to educate families that asthma can be controlled, that they don't have to wait for a sudden attack."

The program--launched by a consortium of health care agencies--is open to youngsters ages 7 to 14 who are on Medi-Cal health assistance and who landed in the hospital at least twice last year because of their asthma. It is offered at Sheridan Way School in Ventura and Cesar Chavez and Harrington elementary schools in Oxnard.

On a recent evening, parents and children gathered in the auditorium at Cesar Chavez school, poring over a long questionnaire that tested participants' knowledge of the disease. Yolanda Anjuiano and her 10-year-old son, Daniel, labored over the exam, an important tool to gauge how much they will learn during the program, which lasts eight sessions and will end in the spring. "If it's successful, if we can prove it makes a difference and we see that families are learning about asthma, then I think we might see the program extended," said Linda Butcher, a school nurse in Oxnard and one of dozens of volunteers who help run the program.

The program is being sponsored by grants and equipped with supplies provided by the Schering Corp., ABT Associates and Key Pharmaceuticals. In coming weeks, families will learn more about the causes of asthma and about triggers such as dust and pets. And they will learn ways to control the disease, including through the regular use of preventive medications. Success will be measured by how much knowledge families gain and whether health educators can reduce the number of emergency room visits and amount of lost school time.

"This is achievable knowledge," Landon said. "Instead of always being in the midst of emergencies, we are trying to help families practice for the future."

Copyright Los Angeles Times

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