Jackie Joyner-Kersee won an Olympic gold medal in track. Bob Gibson was a Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher. And Dominique Wilkins was an NBA basketball star.
What do all these great athletes have in common? They suffered from asthma but learned to control it so that they could grow up to be champions.
Asthma is the most common chronic medical problem our children face today. Each year, 150,000 children are hospitalized with asthma at a total cost of $1.9 billion in medical expenses. The condition also keeps kids home from school more than anything else -- a total of 10 million school days are missed each year.
According to a recent report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1980 and 1994, the incidence of asthma increased an astonishing 160 percent for children under 5 -- and an alarming 70 percent for all Americans.
Fifteen million Americans -- 5 million of them children -- suffer from the episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, tightness of the chest and coughing that characterize asthma. Last year, more than 5,000 died.
Unfortunately, the cause of asthma is not clearly understood, and we don't know all the reasons more people are suffering and symptoms appear more severe than they did 10 years ago. One likely factor, however, is the environment. Poor air quality has been linked to many respiratory ailments, including asthma.
That's why last summer the President announced the toughest action in a generation to protect children from air pollution. New standards for smog and soot will safeguard millions of Americans in urban areas, including 35 million children, from the adverse health effects of breathing polluted air. Each year, these standards should prevent 350,000 new cases of asthma.
Asthma strikes children wherever they live, but it hits the children of our cities the hardest. In New York City, for example, children are hospitalized at four times the national rate.
We have to remember that children are not merely little adults. Pound for pound, they drink more fluids, eat more food and breathe more air than adults. Young children crawl on floors covered with dust, cleaning fluids and other harsh chemicals. Older ones spend more time outdoors, where they're exposed to pollutants in the air and on the ground.
In order to protect our children from unsafe water, food and air, the President signed an Executive Order requiring federal agencies to safeguard children from environmental health and safety risks. No longer will governmental agencies set air, water or food quality standards without taking the special threat to children into consideration.
As Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner reminds us, "When we take steps to protect our children, we are taking steps to protect every American."
Another environmental hazard to our children is secondary smoke. Twenty-seven percent of America's children live in a house where one or more adults smoke. No adult -- and certainly no parent -- should smoke around young children.
As in most pediatric hospitals in the country, asthma is the most common reason children are admitted to the Children's National Medical Center here in Washington. Recently, I toured CNMC's "Room 8," a section of the emergency room designed specifically to treat children with asthma. Because so many parents don't have access to a primary care physician, and many are not properly educated on the early recognition signs of an attack, CNMC has a huge demand for asthma-related emergency care. Of the 48,000 emergency room visits last year, 25 percent were due to asthma.
"Sesame Street's" Elmo went to CNMC with me to visit the patients and talk about his new Muppet friend, Dani, who has asthma. Elmo and Dani are part of a new Sesame Street educational kit that will help children, parents and caregivers understand and cope with asthma.
We also talked about another effort designed to help parents get the information they need to help manage their children's asthma -- the Ozone Mapping Project. For the first time, levels of ozone concentration -- a particular risk for asthmatics -- will be reported daily on weather broadcasts and on the Internet (at www.epa.gov/airnow).
Taken together, these efforts signify important steps in our nation's battle to combat the problem of asthma and ensure a cleaner and healthier environment for all our children.
Although we do not fully understand asthma, we do know how to help prevent and manage it. By keeping parents and caretakers informed about asthma and what to do about it, and by helping communities improve the environment around them, we will continue to make progress so that all our children can grow up to be champions.
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Disease Prevention and Research
July 29, 1998
June 10, 1998
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