By Elliot Patton. Close to 26 million Americans suffer from asthma, including 1 out of every 10 children, and asthma costs our economy about $56 billion per year.  The condition affects racial and ethnic minorities at a dramatically disproportionate rate; African American and Puerto Rican children under the age of 17 are twice as likely as their Caucasian counterparts to be affected by this respiratory condition.  Asthma rates are also correlated with income, with lower income individuals having a significantly higher chance of affliction.  In addition to increased prevalence of asthma in minority populations, minority individuals with asthma are much more likely to have a serious asthma-related health event; black asthmatic children are twice as likely as white children to be hospitalized and four times more likely to die as a result of their condition.

In an event that marked the beginning of a push to end the suffering of these underserved populations, government leaders met yesterday at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington for the official release of the Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities.  White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chair Nancy Sutley, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Shaun Donovan, and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius discussed the significance of the action plan, and a 10 member panel delved deeper into the details of the coordinated effort to reduce racial and ethnic asthma disparities.

The message that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wanted to convey to the crowd gathered in the Boys and Girls Club gymnasium was that “the Obama administration is here for you.”  As the mother of an asthmatic son, she has the deepest possible understanding of the urgency with which this problem must be addressed, and of the injustice that occurs when a child is predisposed to this burdensome condition simply because of their income or race.  In her work at the EPA, Jackson is proud to have overseen the implementation of programs that led to the prevention of 1.7 million asthma attacks last year, and to be working towards enacting Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) which will save between $37 billion and $90 billion in health care costs each year by increasing the quality of our air and decreasing the prevalence of respiratory illness.

While Lisa Jackson has been fighting to uphold the maxim that “every child should grow up in a healthy environment with access to clean air and water,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan has been attacking asthma through programs such as “Healthy Homes” which ensure that people’s houses are not negatively impacting their health.  The 1 in 5 children who live in poverty in the United States are much more likely to live in homes with environmental asthma triggers, and Secretary Donovan laments the fact that it is possibly to predict an individual’s life span based on the zip code that they live in.  He invited the audience to “envision a day where no child has to be sick just based on where they live or what they look like,” and expressed confidence that this new partnership which spans many different areas of government is the way to move towards this goal.

Each of the speakers made a point to emphasize the importance of the interagency collaborative nature of the action plan.  HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pointed out that “the best work we do, we do together.”  She praised the implementation of an all of the above strategy which will be able to approach the reduction of racial and ethnic predisposition to asthma from every possible angle.  Having experienced the pains of dealing with asthma firsthand, when she used to hear her brother gasping for air in the next room when she was a young girl, she is determined to reduce the burden that this condition places on poor and minority Americans: “This shouldn’t happen in America,” she stated resolutely.  The creation of this interagency initiative is the first step in making her goal, and the goal of everyone involved, a reality.

Sandra Howard, Senior Environmental Health Advisor for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health at HHS captured the essence of the event by stating that “I feel a great deal of relief that we’ve gotten this far, but we’re really just at the starting line.”  Now that the framework is in place, it was easy to sense the excitement that each and every speaker and panelist felt at the notion of beginning to chip away at this problem which has had such a widespread impact not only on our nation’s physical health, but on its economic health as well.

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