Smart Investment: Responsive Health Measures for Children and Families

The Naugatuck Valley Health District helping kids in the Valley breathe easier.

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This is especially true in two specific areas—asthma and lead poisoning. Although children with asthma performed on par with their non-asthmatic peers on standardized tests, according to a Journal of School Health research study, students with asthma were absent more than 1.5 times than those without the condition. This absenteeism increases along with grade level and the trend can follow students through their college experience. As for the negative effects of lead poisoning, even the smallest amounts of blood lead levels at around 24 months of age are associated with lower performance on IQ tests later in childhood.

Given that asthma can be managed with highly effective yet inexpensive methods and that lead poisoning can be avoided altogether, programs in these areas here in the Valley are well worth the community's investment.

The Naugatuck Valley Health District (NVHD) is improving the management of asthma cases in Valley children ages 1-13 in order to target children in daycare and the early ages of school. In fact, they're addressing the problem on a level that exceeds prevention; the Connecticut Department of Public Health has documented a rise in the number of students in grades PreK-12 with asthma and students in Naugatuck were more likely to have asthma than students in the state overall.

The Asthma Management for Childcare Providers program "Freedom 2 Breathe" promotes awareness and supports families who have one or more children who have been diagnosed with asthma. One of the tools in this educational effort focuses on the importance of children having an Asthma Action Plan. Parents and caregivers are taught to work with children and monitor how they feel using a green-yellow-red system.

Identifying and reducing asthma triggers can help empower children to feel well more often and stay in the green zone, encouraging them to be active physically, academically, and socially. When children do need to use their inhalers, they can do so more effectively because of the training received from program leaders like Carissa Caserta, MPH, NVHD Interim Director.

"I'm passionate about helping kids breathe," said Caserta. "I've seen kids struggle with asthma. I've been involved with this program for two years and overall asthma education for seven. What we're doing is succeeding."

A daycare director at The Learning Studio in Derby commented, "Each staff person left with a better understanding of what asthma is. We learned ways to detect, prevent, and treat it. With having children at our center who have asthma, we find it very important to be knowledgeable on the topic. It is a great program for the community!"

After initial success with parents and caregivers, the education program expanded to day care centers. The next step is to loop in doctors so that a consistent, effective Asthma Action Plan is implemented for all patients.

Through proactive work, it is absolutely possible to help children stay active. Healthier children do better in school because they attend more classes and pay attention to lessons instead of struggling to breathe.

Parents have expressed deep gratitude as advocates like Caserta help them perform simple but critical tasks to keep children happy and healthy. For example, parents learn that stuffed animals can be put into a dryer to kill dust mites that can trigger an asthma attack.

"Simple solutions can have a significant impact," Caserta pointed out that the minimal cost of the program is a good investment given the costs that can be avoided.

Unlike asthma, lead poisoning is not on the rise but is still a problem in the Valley. The overall housing stock in the Valley is likely to contain lead-based paint.

The solutions are straight forward—education and remediation. By making the public aware of the danger and by removing this toxin from the home, long-term health and behavior problems can be avoided and so can the negative effects on a developing child, which include learning and reading problems, delayed growth, and hearing loss.

Programs such as Naugatuck Valley Emends Lead Hazards (NauVel) have proven worth the investment, giving children a healthier start in school and in life. Carol W. Slajda, MA, MBA, program manager for NauVEL, said "Lead poisoning is 100% preventable but, once a child is infected, there is permanent damage and the cost of care is exponential."

Education leads to identifying and removing the source of lead poisoning so that, in the future, this may be a problem of the past. NauVEL provides funds for testing and remediation if those living in the home meet income eligibility guidelines.

"Property owners don't have to pay back the money, just promise to maintain the property and market vacancies to families with children under six years of age or those who fall into the greatest risk factor." Slajda notes there are barriers to success. Often those living in older homes are struggling in many ways and may be reluctant to share financial information or admit that they do not have another place to stay during the remediation period.

In addition to addressing lead poisoning, a Healthy Homes Supplemental grant focuses on identifying and dealing with dangers such as radon and asbestos or issues such as proper ventilation.

"We help the property owner make the home safer and more comfortable for tenants and increase the value of the property. Also, many insurance companies require lead-safe certificates so that's an added benefit. This is a win-win situation. I've seen the benefits and want to make the Valley safe for our children."

Proactive efforts are working; the number of Valley children under age six with elevated blood lead dropped between 2004 and 2013, which is good news.

"It's important to get your child tested twice between nine and 36 months because early detection is key to minimizing damage if the child has been exposed to lead," Caserta advised. The second test, which is often missed, is perhaps more critical because of the increased risk of exposure as the children become mobile and find potential lead sources on their own.

Anyone who would like to learn more about these programs to minimize the negative impacts of asthma lead poisoning, receive education, or find assistance, can call Caserta at 203-881-3255.