Harlem Kids Breathe Easier

At least four million American children under the age of 18 suffer from asthma, with kids in some inner-city neighborhoods especially at risk.

CBS News correspondent Serena Altschul reports that new treatments are already improving many young lives.

He's not even three, but Micah Martin has been to the emergency room more than most people will go in a lifetime.

"He's been to the emergency room about 25 times," says Ebony Jackson, Micah's mother. "He's been admitted six times, and one time in intensive care."

But Micah is lucky. He's enrolled in a four-year-old intervention program that's trying to reduce levels of childhood asthma in New York's Harlem – a neighborhood with one of the highest rates in the country.

How many kids in Harlem have asthma?

"It's as high as one in three now," says Dr. Vincent Hutchinson of Harlem Hospital.

The Harlem Children's Zone asthma initiative is designed to eliminate some of the factors that appear to contribute to asthma: high exhaust levels, cigarette smoke, old buildings with mold, cockroaches and rodents.

The program, launched by Harlem Hospital, puts pressure on landlords to fix up homes and tries to get kids on medicine early.

The program is working. According to a new study, school absenteeism due to asthma is down from 23 percent to 8 percent, emergency room visits are down from 35 percent to 8 percent, and fewer people are spending the night in the hospital.

Many rooms in the hospital were just filled before with young people with asthma coughing and having trouble breathing, and now several of the rooms are empty.

"We have decreased asthma hospitalization rate more than 50 percent over the last 5 years," Dr. Hutchinson says.

It's cost effective too. While one night in the hospital can cost over $4,000, the preventive program costs about $1,700 per year.

"They have the tools, they have the knowledge and they have the skills to manage their asthma at home," Dr. Hutchinson says.

Doctors hope this kind of aggressive intervention may work with other diseases such as diabetes and obesity. But for now, it's helping many children in Harlem breathe easier.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com