Asthma: It Takes Your Breath Away

Edgar is an eight-year-old with a winning smile, lives in a comfortable apartment in Woodside, but spends long hours in bed tethered to a breathing apparatus.
He is one of thousands of Queens children suffering from asthma, an epidemic in the borough that robs youngsters of their breath.
Asthma is a chronic, incurable disease of the airways characterized by intermittent episodes of wheezing, coughing and breathlessness.
Even with his serious problem, Edgar is one of the lucky ones. He’s yet to be rushed to a hospital emergency room. According to a recent New York City Health Department report, "Turning Points," asthma is the leading cause of hospitalization for children through the age of four. And Edgar’s Woodside-Long Island City neighborhood has one of the highest asthma hospitalization rates in Queens.
His neighborhood has an estimated 16.1 asthma cases per 1,000 persons, according to the Health Department. Other Queens areas with high asthma hospitalization rates are Jamaica, Steinway-Astoria and Jackson Heights.
New studies on asthma show that the disease is an inner-city epidemic that claims 5,000 lives in the U.S. each year. Public health officials say rates of hospital admissions, emergency room visits and deaths most often target the poor.
One ray of hope is the recent order by Governor George Pataki to set new rules designed to produce sharp reductions of chemical pollutants emitted from the State’s coal-burning electric power plants. It is expected to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide by 50 percent. (See the adjacent story on ths page).
Medical experts such as Dr. Robert Mittman, a Bayside allergist, say that the rapid rise of asthma in this country and in developed nations around the world, is one of the biggest mysteries in modern medicine.
Mittman counsels parents to keep a close watch on their children. He said the more noticeable signs of childhood asthma include less stamina during playtime than their peers and limiting physical activity to avoid coughing or wheezing.
"Childhood asthma usually worsens as a result of respiratory infections that are triggered off by environmental factors like dust, mold and pests," he said. "But one of the biggest irritants is tobacco smoke."
Mittman said that once your child’s asthma is controlled it is very important to develop an exercise schedule.
The Bayside allergist said that asthma is among the most common potentially serious illnesses complicating pregnancy. He cited studies showing that about one of every 100 pregnant women suffer from asthma during their pregnancy.
"Pregnant patients suffering from asthma," Mittman said, "who do not keep their condition under control can cause extremely harmful effects to the developing fetus."
He notes that uncontrolled asthma can cause a decrease in the oxygen content of the mother’s blood which results in the fetal blood being less oxygenated.
The city said Bayside has the lowest asthma hospitalization rate in New York City.