Breath-Taking: Asthma and The Social Determinants of Health

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When I was seven, I remember my cousin stopping in the middle of football games, pulling a red L-shaped thing out of his pocket, and taking a puff of it. For some reason, I never questioned it. It wasn’t until we were older and he went to the emergency room several times, that I realized how serious this “asthma” thing was.

I was shocked to find out that asthma is the leading chronic illness among youth in this country and the third leading cause of hospitalization of children under the age of 15, according to the National Center for Health Statistic.  Among Americans with asthma, minority children are affected the most. African-American and Puerto Rican children are six times more likely than white children to die from an asthma attack. Why is this?

According to the World Health Organization, several factors contribute to these statistics, including how much money someone has. From being part of a health program at Youth Radio, I realized my cousin and many other young people are directly affected by something called the “Social Determinants of Health.”

The Social Determinants of Health are the circumstances in which people are born, work and live, and are shaped by the distribution of money, power, and resources which all affect how healthy we are. Communities and neighborhoods with less money are more likely to be exposed to environmental pollutants like industrial waste, and young people who live in these communities and neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to indoor and outdoor pollution like dust, cigarette smoke or automobile exhaust. All these things can trigger an asthma attack.

Remember my cousin? He’s from West Oakland, which is not very far from the Port of Oakland. He’s lived there his whole life. Pollution from the port goes into the air he breathes, triggering asthma attacks. Although we may not know it, the Social Determinants of Health affect all of us. In order to change this phenomenon, we must first understand it. According to, understanding the relationship between health and where people live is essential to knowing how to prevent chronic diseases. My cousin is still an asthmatic, but he now lives in Fremont. Since he moved, his attacks are rare, but he stills carries an inhaler as a precaution. For me, he is a constant reminder that where people live can truly affect their health.



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