The Oakland Unified School District educates 42,000 students, a good many of whom struggle with the energy-zapping symptoms of asthma.  Its urban location and high number of low-income students made the Oakland school district a prime destination to study the merits of an asthma awareness program developed to educate asthmatic children on their medical condition.  Researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program hoped the program would help children better manage their medical care in order to prevent absences from school and reduce the number of emergency room visits these children often face.

Almost 6.8 million US students (close to 10%) suffer from asthma, a chronic medical condition that jeopardizes a patient’s ability to breathe freely.  Asthmatic kids must often restrict physical activities, making play time not so much fun.  Breathing difficulties also keep them from school and require costly emergency medical care in many instances.  Asthma does much more than reining in childhood fun, though.  It kills.

Sheryl Magzamen, PhD, a foundation scholar working from the University of Wisconsin, writes in the December issue of the ‘Journal of School Health,’ that the ‘Kickin’ Asthma’ program has proven successful, providing children with better coping strategies that allow them to be in better control of their condition.

Reporting on the first three years (2003 to 2006) of the ‘Kickin’ Asthma’ project, Magzamen’s research team worked with 1,309 students identified as asthmatic out of a survey group of 8,488 students, indicating a prevalence rate of about 15.4%, much higher than the national average.  Of these asthmatic students, 990 became study participants, all in grades 7 through 10.

These students represent 15 middle schools and three area high schools.  In addition to living in low-income households, these students represent one of the most culturally diverse student bodies in the country, with ethnic representation as follows:

–  45% African American;
–  31% Latino;
–  17% Asian or Filipino; and
–  5% Caucasian.

Many of the school campuses within the Oakland district have no on-site nurse or health aides in attendance.

The American Lung Association developed and contributed to the funding of the voluntary program, which involved four sessions in which students learned more about their disease, focused on facts while identifying myth, and became much better educated about how and when to take asthma medications.  The effort proved quite successful.

Students’ absences from school due to asthma dropped by a half a day for every four weeks of intervention but other improvements were identified as well.  Medications were taken more effectively more of the time, symptoms improved at rates that were measured as significant, and the need for hospitalization or emergency medical care was reduced proportionally.  Perhaps best of all, fewer students died from asthma.

Adam Davis, Programs and Research Director for the American Lung Association, praised the program, saying it was developed specifically for children in urban areas and successfully targets children at the age when they are beginning to exert more control over their own lives.  The tools and strategies the students took from the program can be used for the rest of their lives to minimize sick days and reduce the expense of costly medical procedures.

In addition to funding from the American Lung Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also contributed on behalf of its Controlling Asthma in American Cities Project.