Taking a breath of air can be as easy as drinking from a cup, but imagine if you were reduced to drinking through a straw. That constriction is a reality for a growing number of Americans with breathing problems — especially for Hispanics.
More than 10 percent of nearly 4 million Hispanics in Florida suffer from asthma, equaling the rate of all Floridians who report having the condition, according to the Florida Department of Health. For Puerto Ricans, the respiratory damage is more pronounced.
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“Puerto Ricans suffer from asthma at a much higher rate than any other ethnic group in the country,” said Eric Gray, executive director of the Central Florida chapter of the American Lung Association.
Nationally, about 11.2 percent of Americans have asthma. That number doubles for those of Puerto Rican descent, 22.3 percent of whose population are gasping for air.
Jim Cundiff, program director at the Florida Lung Association said, “Their rates are 140 percent higher than non-Hispanic white children while at the same time Mexican Americans have the lowest rates.”
Researchers have been unsuccessful in figuring out why Puerto Ricans are at higher risk.
“People of Puerto Rican descent, for whatever reason, have a higher genetic predisposition to be born with asthma than the average human being,” Gray said.
Asthma is a chronic condition that inflames the inside walls of the airways. It is triggered by allergens such as dust, pet dander and smoke. Inhaling these triggers causes the airways to constrict, making breathing difficult and at times impossible.
Today, more than 20 million Americans suffer from asthma, a number that has steadily increased since 1998, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Florida Department of Health reported that in 2006, the number of asthma-related hospitalizations swelled, including in Orange County, home to thousands of Puerto Rican families.
Puerto Ricans die four times as frequently from asthma-related symptoms as all other groups, Cundiff said.
For Miguel Rodriguez, 38, asthma has been a family affair. He said his mother battled for years with a severe form of chronic asthma that left her breathless.
“My mother died three times,” said Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican. “She flat-lined three times because she couldn't get enough air.”
She was finally able to manage her condition with medicine, and Rodriguez said he thought he had “grown out” of his own asthma. When his daughter, Xianise, 7, was diagnosed with asthma as a toddler, Rodriguez said the news was traumatic.
“I felt bad for giving it to her and for not preventing it,” he said.
When Rodriguez's family first moved into their Orlando, Fla., home, Xianise began to wheeze so severely that she was taken to the hospital. After two or three more episodes, Rodriguez's wife, Aracellie took their child and moved out of the home.
Rodriguez said they were clueless about the cause until the previous owner said cats had lived in the house. All the carpets were removed, air ducts were cleaned and replaced with HEPA filters, and Xianise is restricted to only one stuffed animal in bed.
“We had her tested and most of her triggers were environmental, like pollen, grass and dust,” Aracellie said.
Xianise has learned to prevent reactions.
“At night, if I sound like a fly buzzing around, I call Mom and Dad to help me,” she said.
Health professionals said understanding the triggers of asthma and teaching children is the best way to manage the asthma epidemic and avoid unnecessary deaths.
“In 2006, there were 48 asthma fatalities in Florida; of those, nine were under 18,” Cundiff said. “For an entirely manageable condition, one death is unacceptable.”
The Florida Lung Association is expanding its “Open Airways for Schools” programs in Orange and Osceola counties to reach those elementary schools heavily populated by Puerto Rican children.
“Hispanics, regardless of their country of birth or ancestry, have to understand that asthma is a serious disease that kills 11 people every day in the U.S.,” said Dr. Jose Arias, an Orlando asthma and allergy specialist.
The percentage of Americans who have asthma: 11.2 percent.
The percentage of people of Puerto Rican descent who have asthma: 22.3 percent.
The number of Hispanics who suffer from asthma in Florida: 4 million.
© 2008, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): asthma+hispanics AMX-2008-08-15T08:32:00-04:00