More asthma inhalers going to school

Posted: 10/1/2010

From Chicago Tribune

Asthma sufferers and their families may breathe a little easier this fall, thanks to a new state law making it simpler for students to carry and administer rescue inhalers at school.

Students now need only a note from a parent or guardian, and a copy of their prescription, to keep their inhalers with them. Previously, they were also required to get written permission from a physician, a logistical hurdle that prevented many from having ready access to their medication.

With the chronic respiratory disease reaching epidemic levels in the Chicago area -- particularly in African-American and Hispanic communities -- eliminating that barrier will provide quick and potentially lifesaving relief for thousands, according to officials.

"Over the years, many of the students would carry their asthma inhaler, but they would have to hide it," said state Rep. Esther Golar, a Chicago Democrat who spearheaded the legislation on behalf of the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. Golar's district includes predominantly black Englewood, where one in five children has asthma, among the highest rates in Chicago and far above the national average.

It is estimated that 9.4 percent of U.S. children, or 7 million, have asthma. In Illinois, between 14 and 15 percent of middle and high school students have asthma, according to a 2008 survey conducted by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

A chronic inflammation of the air passages, asthma episodes are characterized by wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing. In severe cases, asthma can be fatal. Although the cause is unknown, it is believed that both genetics and environmental factors play a part in the disease. There is no cure, but the disease can be controlled through medication. Asthma inhalers can both be preventive and provide emergency relief by delivering anti-inflammatory or muscle-relaxing medications into the airways.

Before 2001, Illinois had no specific regulations regarding the use of asthma inhalers at school.

"There was no standard policy, so some schools allowed it, others did not," said Matt Maloney, director of health policy at the Respiratory Health Association.

After several asthma-related deaths at Chicago and suburban schools, Illinois adopted a law in 2001 allowing students to carry inhalers with a doctor's permission.

"That was to protect the rights for the student to carry it," said Maloney. "There were problems where a student would have an inhaler at school, but it was locked up in a nurse's office."

The new Illinois law, which took effect in August, is believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. and may open the door for students in other states, according to officials.

"We've already had inquiries from other lung associations in other states interested in getting this type of legislation passed," said Harold Wimmer, CEO for the American Lung Association in Greater Chicago.

For West Lawn resident Sheri Hurdle, whose two children have asthma, the new law is a big relief. Her 12-year-old son, Jermaine, a seventh-grader at CICS Wrightwood, uses his inhaler regularly at school -- often after gym class -- and she goes to great lengths to ensure that he has it with him at all times.

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