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Funding is restored to an asthma ed. program, no thanks to Rell

Daniel D'Ambrosio

September 15, 2009

Asthma is a big problem in Connecticut's five largest cities Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Stamford and Waterbury disproportionately affecting the poor. Yet it's largely under the radar, according to Ashika Brinkley, asthma initiative project director for the New Haven health department.

"It's not the sexiest disease, so it doesn't get a lot of attention, but it's a really big issue," said Brinkley. "In New Haven, it's the number-one reason for missed school days among children."

Rita Kornblum, health education manager for the Hartford Health and Human Services Department, says asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism in Hartford as well. Kornblum said the city lost state funding for a program to educate residents about asthma a year and a half ago, but she still gives presentations when she can.

Yet another asthma education program for inner city residents funded with just $150,000 annually was cut from this year's budget by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Dr. Mark Mitchell, founder of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice, runs the Community Asthma Outreach and Education program in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport. Brinkley sits on the board of the organization.

Last week funding was restored to the program, but it wasn't because of any direct action by the governor, according to Lawrence Cook, spokesman for Sen. Jonathan A. Harris, D-West Hartford, chairman of the Public Health Committee.

Instead, the asthma program was saved by a ruling by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal: Because Rell had refused to sign the budget in protest, she couldn't veto line items from it. One of those items was the asthma program.

"It's good news for us," said Mitchell.

A spokeswoman for the governor declined to comment on the program, directing inquiries to the legislature's Office of Fiscal Analysis.

Mitchell became director of Hartford's Department of Health in 1991, but left in 1995 to work more closely with the city's low-income residents. Soon after, Mitchell was performing physicals for children headed for a church camp and found about one-third had asthma. The national average for children is about 8 percent.

A recent report by the state Department of Health reveals that Connecticut's urban poor are three times more likely than people in the rest of the state to be hospitalized due to asthma. They are twice as likely to die, according to the report.

Shocked by his findings, Mitchell told his former colleagues in the city who said "it's not uncommon for a third of city kids to have asthma."

"That got me very angry because it showed they have double standards," said Mitchell. "I decided to form [CCEJ] to make sure low-income people get the services they need."

Since forming CCEJ in 1998, Mitchell and his staff have taken on a variety of environmental issues related to asthma, including limiting how long school buses can idle. Diesel fumes are one of many triggers for asthma attacks, which leave their victims struggling to catch a breath.

"Everybody has different triggers," says Brinkley. "There are things like perfume and fragrances, rodent droppings, pet dander, dust mites that live in carpet, pillows and mattresses, cold air, or hot air with humidity. It's a tough disease to have."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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