Babies in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are hospitalized for pneumonia 10 times more often than in other parts of the United States. Now, tribal health organizations are partnering with the Alaska Native Medical Center to tackle the problem.
A new pilot program will focus on Alaskan parents whose children are hospitalized with pneumonia or other respiratory issues. Specialists will provide families with free consultations and offer them concrete advice on how to improve their children’s health.
The program is the latest step in a decades-long fight against pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses in Alaska Native children. According to pediatrician Rosalyn Singleton, children who contract respiratory illnesses early in life can develop long-term health problems, including chronic lung disease.
"The airways in the lung are damaged from repeated infections," she explained. "Those children could have long term issues and sometimes require surgery, or go on as adults to have other respiratory issues."
Singleton works with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, or ANTHC. In 2010, the group collaborated with YK Delta organizations to launch the Healthy Homes Program, which surveyed households throughout southwest Alaska. They confirmed that indoor air quality is one of the primary causes of childhood respiratory illness. The good news is that parents can decrease the chances that their children will get sick by taking simple steps around their home.
"We want to make sure that we’re ventilating our homes," said ANTHC Program Manager A.J. Salkoski. "We also want to make sure that if people are taking showers, that they’re using the fan. And if we’re cooking, we want to make sure that we’re using that range exhaust as well."
Some families in the YK Delta close off air vents to keep the heat in their homes. If homes get crowded, this practice can increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the indoor air to unhealthy levels. Salkoski recommended keeping all air vents open and using exhaust fans while cooking and bathing. He also said that families should burn the driest firewood first in the winter to cut down on mold-causing moisture in the home. He also advised against bringing contaminants such as paint or fuel into the house, and suggested that the repair of broken down chainsaws or snow machines should not be done inside.
In addition to advising families in hospitals, ANTHC has also installed new cooking stoves in homes and organized educational sessions in some communities. Both Salkoski and Singleton said that they’ve seen a significant drop in the rate of respiratory illness in children since those initiatives began.