Jennifer Elliott: Pennsylvania school screenings missing vital asthma test |
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With students back in class, schools across the state are providing annual vision and hearing screenings to help ensure student well-being. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania does not mandate a screening for the most common chronic childhood disease: asthma.

Such screenings should be required in Pennsylvania, which has the second highest percentage of children suffering from asthma in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A 2017 Allegheny Health Network study found that of more than 1,200 Western Pennsylvania school children, 24% suffered from asthma, as compared to the national average of 8.3% as reported by the National Center for Health Statistics.

In my work in the Pittsburgh region, I’ve screened thousands of students for asthma and personally seen how the disease affects parents and their children. The impact on their lives is significant.

Asthma is one of the top reasons for missed school days, causing students to not only fall behind in their classes but also miss opportunities to socially interact with peers, take on an active lifestyle or participate in sports. Without treatment, these children face an uphill battle to keep up.

The situation is direr for people living in underserved communities, where access to health services can be spotty or nonexistent. Some groups of children, specifically African American children and those on public insurance, have a significantly higher prevalence of the disease and poorer disease control.

In many cases, parents aren’t aware that their child is suffering from asthma. In previous studies, we’ve found that approximately 15% of parents may not even know that their children have the disease. This in turn leads to trouble sleeping at night, limited activity, missed school days and unnecessary emergency room visits.

It’s a problem that’s not going away, given the number of Pennsylvania cities that suffer from poor air quality. Studies have shown that air pollution, among other triggers, can worsen asthma symptoms, and Pennsylvania locations scored poorly on the American Lung Association’s 2019 State of the Air report. Pittsburgh and Johnstown- Somerset were among the Pennsylvania regions listed in the report’s top 25 for most polluted areas by “year-round particulate pollution.”

Just like vision and hearing screenings, state-mandated asthma screenings would help to identify problems early and ultimately improve student health and educational outcomes. Schools that have integrated asthma screenings as part of their back-to-school physicals are seeing excellent results.

Last year, more than 1,000 children from several school districts received asthma screenings as part of their back-to-school process. Children with undiagnosed or uncontrolled asthma were connected to care. Thanks to that success, six school districts will be teaming up with Duquesne University’s School of Pharmacy to conduct asthma screenings in their districts.

At these screenings, parents simply complete a four-question survey that helps identify if their child has asthma and if so, if it was controlled by medication. The school location ensures that all children, even those without convenient access to health care, can be screened and identified early.

By mandating school-based asthma screenings, we can improve the health of our children and establish a foundation for students to excel in school and in life.

Jennifer Elliott, Pharm.D., is an associate professor of pharmacy at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh.

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