Natives And Asthma

By Anna Nelson

Santa Fe, NM – When Sian Slaney-Ambridge has an asthma attack, she says she feels like she’s drowning. “Fighting for breath and yet not being able to breath is very scary indeed!” says Slaney-Ambridge. “Your chest tightens, your heart beats fast and hard. Triggers can be due to exposure to pollen, an ingredient in foods, animal fur that triggers it off. Frosty or icy weather, if it’s hot and humid.”

According to Minority Health, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services, American Indian/Alaska Native adults are 30% more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic Whites. However the data is limited on why that is so.

Dr. Daniel Coles has been with the Indian Health Service in Santa Fe, New Mexico for seven years, but also offers few answers. “I do know that asthma rates have been increasing worldwide and that we see a lot of Native Americans with asthma,” says Coles. “There is no study that I am aware of that proves one or a number of causes is responsible for the increase in asthma rates.”

Coles says air pollution and smog can trigger asthma attacks. However, New Mexico has the second cleanest air of all of the states in the U.S.; second only to Hawaii. He also says there is speculation that various chemicals in food, furniture, cleaning products and clothes may play a role. “I am not sure what the reason for the increase in asthma is,” says Coles. “I suspect the increase is from more air pollution, more toxic chemicals in the environment and the progressive shift of our society away from living in harmony with nature.”

Thomas Antonio, an Ethno-botany instructor at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), agrees with the toxic environment factor and its “explosion” within those that are low income and of poverty level. He’s seen a direct link between the toxic waste and those with asthma.

“From 1999-2002 I worked as Curator of Collections at the Garfield Park Conservatory on Chicago’s west side,” says Antonia.  “It was primarily an impoverished African-American community with a high percentage of children with varying degrees of asthma. Many of us noted that the area had very poor air quality due to the prevalence of steel mills, power plants and other aging polluting factories.   There was little doubt that these factories were a contributing factor to the large amount of children with asthma.”

Another contributing cause may be being born too early, according to IAIA college student, Sasha LaPointe. “I was involved in a conversation with two friends regarding asthma,” says LaPointe. “It turned out the three of us, who all suffer from asthma, all happened to be premature. Myself, I was three months premature, my two friends about a month””the other two months. We all happened to be ‘premies’ and have asthma. I was curious about the coincidence.”

What triggers her asthma attacks? “Mine isn’t that bad,” says LaPointe. “A couple different things trigger my attacks: the plants outside, the thin air, sometimes its exercise or activity induced, other times it’s panic induced. If I’m really overwhelmed with stress, or if I get startled, it varies. I wasn’t around smoke a lot growing up. As an adult if   I do smoke that makes it way worse. I manage it by trying to stay active””the more exercise I get seems to help. I also like to use Eucalyptus oil, to inhale it. It’s good for my chest and natural. I only like  to use my inhaler if I absolutely have to. My asthma is definitely not better here in Santa Fe, the high elevation and the different desert climate help to trigger it.”
What if the “natural” methods are not working for those with more severe asthma? Dr. Coles, states, “Most people with exercise-triggered asthma can prevent this by taking an inhaled medication called albuterol 20 minutes prior to exercising. If a person starts to feel the symptoms of asthma there are medications that can prevent the asthma from progressing to a severe attack.”

Another treatment is “Immunotherapy” when medications and allergen avoidance are not doing the trick. In this process, a series of shots are given with increasing doses of the afflicting allergen, which is specific for each patient until “maintenance” is achieved, making the body more tolerant to the allergen. This is continued for usually three to five years ”“ till the allergy symptoms improve.

“There are ways of lowering the chances of having an asthma attack,” says Doctor Coles. “If you can prevent or avoid getting sick with a cold or other respiratory tract infection, if you can keep the dust and cockroaches out of your home, if you can avoid smoke, and if you can avoid allergens or take allergy medication to protect you from allergens then you will have a lower chance of having asthma attacks.”

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