San Antonio Express-News: Bexar child asthma problems worsen

Dr. Mandie Svatek, an assistant professor of pediatrics, was featured in the article below about Bexar County’s asthma task force, published Feb. 18.

By Alia Malik

In 2015, Bexar County’s rate of child hospitalizations due to asthma surpassed the state average for the first time in recent memory, data presented Friday at a summit sponsored by University Health System showed.

That year, the most recent for which data are available, 13.9 children per 10,000 population were hospitalized with asthma, compared with the state average of 8.3 per 10,000, said Dr. Mandie Svatek, a University Hospital pediatrician and associate professor at UT Health San Antonio.

Bexar County also saw increased pediatric asthma hospitalizations compared with Dallas and Houston, where rates had in the past been comparable to or higher than San Antonio’s, Svatek said.

“Something’s changed,” she said.

San Antonio’s high ozone levels have been the most intractable contributing factor, Svatek said. Experts theorize that emission rates and long vehicle idling times are among the causes of the city’s poor air quality. As a result, families and the medical system are spending more to treat asthma, a chronic lung disease that inflames the airways.

Four children died of asthma last year in Bexar County, Svatek said. By comparison, 219 children died of asthma nationwide in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Children with asthma can miss numerous consecutive days of school, or lose a signifroom time to the school clinic, said Diane Rhodes, assistant director for asthma education in the North East Independent School District. About 12 percent of NEISD students have asthma or a history of the disease, Rhodes said.

A high rate of asthma-related absences can also cause school districts to lose state funding that is based on average daily attendance, she said.

Many children with asthma have “action plans” detailing their treatment for school nurses — but not all such plans allow parents to waive the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act so the nurse can talk to their child’s physician. Summit participants recommended that doctors include FERPA waivers in the plans.

NEISD has a program to educate students and their parents about asthma and stockpile emergency medication and breathing aids, but many smaller school districts do not. The district also works with its facilities staff to reduce environmental asthma triggers, Rhodes said.

The summit Friday at the San Antonio Food Bank was a first step to reviving the South Texas Asthma Coalition, which has been dormant for several years, Svatek said. The group will address the ways insurance companies, schools and families can fight asthma.

“It’s not going to be a quick and easy thing to do, but it’s something that we’re very capable of doing if we take the right approach and take it one step at a time,” Svatek said.

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