A new organization, the McAllen Asthma Coalition (MAC), is pioneering a unique education program in elementary schools to help children learn how to manage their asthma.

“During the past two decades, asthma has increased across the United States and in Texas,” said Genny Carrillo-Zuniga, M.D., M.P.H., M.S.P.H., assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Texas A&M Health Science Center (HSC) School of Rural Public Health in McAllen. “Childhood asthma rates are highest among minorities. Increasing numbers of children with asthma are found in families with low education attainment and those who reside in low-income communities.”

Two years ago, Dr. Carrillo-Zuniga decided to address the problem of increasing numbers of childhood asthma cases in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV). She was awarded funds by the Texas Asthma Control Program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to organize MAC, and it launched in August 2008. Some MAC partners are Betty Chang-Menard of South Texas College (STC) Nursing and Allied Health, Nancy Nadeau of The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), and Dora Hernandez of the Texas Asthma Control Program.

A unique aspect of the asthma education program involves students at STC and UTPA. These students visit RGV elementary schools to work directly with children who suffer asthma attacks.

“This is the first time local higher education institutions have cooperated in addressing asthma as a public health improvement project,” said Dr. Carrillo-Zuniga.

Respiratory therapy majors at STC and nursing majors at UTPA were trained to carry out a special open airways curriculum developed by the American Lung Association, a founding partner of MAC. The open airways program teaches children to identify indoor environmental factors that trigger asthma and how to use an inhaler with medication to clear congested airways.

During the first visit to an elementary school, the STC respiratory therapy majors administered an asthma control test to establish a baseline for each child. Children with asthma then were taught how to use their inhaler and a peak flow meter at home.

Asthma education training is also offered to parents and elementary school personnel based on information provided by the American Lung Association and the National Healthy Homes Training Center and Network.

UTPA nursing majors have organized health fairs for children and parents at several Rio Grande Valley public schools.

“Senior students studying for a B.S.N. (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) participated in the health fairs as part of their community health course,” Nadeau said. “The goal was to provide health education to empower the asthmatic children and their parents to take better care of themselves.”

Another program by the McAllen Asthma Coalition is aimed at adult education among Spanish speaking communities. Promotoras are trained to instruct families about healthy indoor environments and environmental triggers that cause asthma. The promotoras then visit families in colonias whose children have asthma and provide them with individual training.

Financial grants awarded to Dr. Carrillo-Zuniga have funded the promotoras education efforts, which she also organized and coordinated.

“We are evaluating the training programs in order to expand the asthma education efforts to an additional four elementary and middle schools in the Rio Grande Valley this year,” Dr. Carrillo-Zuniga said.

The Texas A&M Health Science Center provides the state with health education, outreach and research through campuses in Bryan-College Station, Dallas, Temple, Houston, Round Rock, Kingsville, Corpus Christi and McAllen. Its six colleges are the Baylor College of Dentistry, the College of Medicine, the College of Nursing, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy and the School of Rural Public Health. Other units include the Institute of Biosciences and Technology and the Coastal Bend Health Education Center.