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Surgeon general targets asthma ‘epidemic’

For parents who have a child with asthma, there is nothing more terrifying than watching that child struggle to breathe during an attack. As Tom Costello reports, the number of asthma cases is growing so quickly, the surgeon general says asthma is now a national epidemic.

A mobile asthma clinic in the inner city of Los Angeles is on a mission to help kids breathe and keep them out of the emergency room. The clinic is on the front lines in what doctors call the battle against an epidemic.

"The usual care for asthmatic kids in the inner city, or the frequent care, is the emergency room," says Dr. Stanley Galant with Children's Hospital of Orange County, Calif.

The numbers, from the U.S. surgeon general, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Lung Association, are striking:

  • 20 million Americans suffer from asthma — that's three times as many as 25 years ago;
  • 1 in every 8 children has asthma;
  • 12 people die from asthma daily.

"You will breathe and then ... like you're wheezing and struggling to get it out, and then you breathe in quickly and then it keeps on going and it gets really tight in your chest," says 14-year-old Michael Stampler as he describes his symptoms.

Stampler's asthma has landed him in the emergency room several times, even though he conscientiously takes medicine daily and uses inhalers to keep his asthma at bay.

"The emergency room needs to be part of the plan," says Michael's mother, Ann Stampler. "It needs to be plan B."

But the surgeon general says too many people fail to keep their asthma under control, then turn to hospitals when they suffer an attack, with 5,000 ER visits recorded each day.

"There is no cure for asthma, but it is a very manageable disease if you understand the triggers in your life," says U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona.

The Environmental Protection Agency has found that fewer than 30 percent of people with asthma are taking simple steps to reduce exposure to those triggers. Secondhand smoke, cockroaches, dust mites, mold and ozone can cause asthma in young children or set off asthma attacks.

Experts believe that by helping patients manage their asthma more effectively and keeping them out of the ER, they could save the health care system more than $500 million each year. The ultimate goal: Cutting asthma-related hospitalizations by 50,000 over the next five years.

"If one of my patients ends up in the emergency room, that I view as a failure!" says Dr. Ronald Ferdman at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. "We believe that we should be able to keep everybody out of the emergency room."

Ferdman advocates early intervention and constant vigilance to keep a killer at bay.