Imperial Valley's young asthma sufferers a growing concern
Graciela Ruiz (left), a community health worker at El Centro Regional Medical Center, teaches Beatriz Lugo about asthma, in Spanish, at Lugo's residence in El Centro on April 24. (JOSELITO VILLERO FILE PHOTO / June 30, 2013)
To keep these incidents to a minimum, the El Centro family of six, of which five are asthmatic, has gone to great lengths to eliminate any household item that may trigger asthma symptoms.
Hypoallergenic pillows and curtains, restrictions on indoor pets and carpeting, the weekly changing of air-conditioning filters and constantly cleaning everything are just some of their strategies.
“You can have an (asthma) attack for having the wrong clothes on,” said Gina Arce, matriarch of the house.
As Arce has come to find out, certain fabrics may harbor dust mites better than others, as well as retain scents and smells that in turn may trigger an asthma attack. After all the family has been through, she said she considers herself pretty knowledgeable about asthma prevention and treatment.
The only one among her husband and four children who is not asthmatic, Arce finds herself in a peculiar position, but hardly alone.
“I’m just one of many, many, many,” she said.
A chronic problem
While local rates for people diagnosed with or currently suffering from asthma closely reflect those of the state, the rates for local hospitalizations and emergency room visits far exceed state figures.
In 2010, the rate of asthma-related emergency room visits for children ages 0-4 was 189.4 per 100,000 residents in the county, while it was 109.7 for the state.
“For a relatively small town, that is significant,” said Dr. Michael Welch of the Allergy & Asthma Medical Group in San Diego.
Adding to the problem is the fact that the Valley lacks a dedicated pediatric specialist for asthma, Welch said, noting that it’s often difficult for a physician to devote its practice to solely treating asthma.
“It would be nice if we could get someone out there,” Welch said.
Air quality in the area tends to suffer from high levels of fossil fuel emissions, pesticides, mold and dust. Windblown dust is the largest contributor in the county to particulate matter 10, or particles 10 microns and smaller, according to the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District.
Aside from the air quality, patient education, or lack thereof, also contributes to high rates of hospitalization.
“Asthma is very controllable once diagnosed and treated,” said Welch, who has visited the Valley to conduct asthma- and allergy-related presentations.
Education about asthma triggers, prevention and treatment is crucial to managing the chronic disease, for which there is no cure, experts said.
On average, local hospitals will charge about $24,296 for an asthma-related hospitalization. There were 297 hospitalizations with a primary diagnosis of asthma in the county in 2010, slightly above the average admitted between 1998-2010, which was 290, according to data provided by El Centro Regional Medical Center.
The recent closure of ECRMC’s children’s clinic may have added to such hospitalizations in the past eight months, said Aide Fulton, Imperial Valley Child Asthma Program director. Its closure put an end to weekly visits from a San Diego-based asthma specialist and left patients without a venue for follow-up consultations.