Chicago is the nation’s epicenter for asthma disparity, with African-American children on the South and West sides dying from asthma at eight times the rate of their white counterparts.

In those neighborhoods, the city’s asthma rate among black children — roughly one in four (24 percent) — is twice the national average, according to University of Illinois Hospital Community Assessment of Needs (UI-CAN) survey.

Though asthma is genetically driven – meaning that it can be inherited – it can also stem from other factors, including exposure to smog and to poor air quality.

“Some issues have nothing to do with health care,” said Dr. Jerry Krishnan, a pulmonologist and associate vice chancellor for population health sciences at UIC.

“Do they have access to parks to get exercise?” Krishnan said. “Do they have affordable and accessible healthcare?”

The heartbreaking dilemmas highlight May’s designation as “National Asthma and Allergy Awareness” month – a peak season for those who have trouble breathing.

The condition in children is often accompanied by wheezing noises while breathing, and/or coughing or getting short of breath while exercising, said Dr. B. Louise Giles, co-director of the South Side Pediatric Asthma Center and director of Comer Children’s Hospital’s pediatric asthma program. Parents of children who show such symptoms should immediately contact a board-certified pediatric pulmonologist or pediatric allergist, Giles said.

Yet just as the spring season awaits, so does hope.

Chicago is home to a groundbreaking coalition of seven hospitals that have shown that a partnership can make a difference.

The hospitals that joined forces in what’s called the “CHICAGO Plan” are the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern’s Lurie Children’s Hospital, Rush University Medical Center, Cook County Health and Hospitals System, Mt. Sinai Hospital and Holy Cross Hospital.

They worked as a team with the Chicago Department of Public Health to test, in part, the impact of using specially designed care plans that help doctors, children and their caregivers talk about asthma care after going home.

The plan also included community health workers who went to the children’s homes for six months to help them follow doctors’ orders, make follow-up doctor visits, get prescriptions filled and pinpoint triggers that would start an asthmatic attack.

The three-year-long effort got started with $4 million from the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute, based in Washington, D.C. The CHICAGO Plan enrolled 450 children ages 5 to 11 living in asthma “hot spots” on the South and West Sides who visited the hospital’s emergency department.

The results showed that the families with the extra help did better than those left to their own devices: they got the right prescriptions, got their prescriptions filled, and went back to their doctors for checkups. For example, the families in the extra help group were more likely to get prescriptions for inhaled controller medicines (about 70 percent compared to 40 percent), fill prescriptions in the pharmacy (about 70 percent compared to 40 percent), and attend follow-up appointments (about 50 percent compared to 30 percent).

“Our study showed that we can make a difference together,” Krishnan said.

The University of Illinois Hospital also partners with Mobile Care Foundation to provide asthma and allergy care in vans that visit the hardest-hit neighborhoods. Dr. Andrea Pappalardo, a pediatric asthma and allergy specialist at the hospital, staffs a van that focuses on the South and West Sides.

Giles, of Comer Hospital, tells children about athletes such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Dennis Rodman, who have managed their asthma to accomplish amazing triumphs. Giles, who moved to Chicago four years ago from Winnipeg, Canada, said she was “almost speechless” when she learned of Chicago’s childhood asthma rates because they were higher than any she had ever encountered.

The next phase of the CHICAGO Plan’s work, with $350,000 from the National Institutes of Health, aims to keep the partnership going and improve on it.

Shawanda Leonard-McCloud and David McCloud know only too well the need for minute-to-minute vigilance, since the south suburban Lynwood couple and four of their six children suffer from asthma.

They got the scare of their lives two years ago, when their eldest, David Jr., now 16, had to be put on life support and lay in a coma for a week after a cold virus triggered a life-threatening asthma attack.

His mother says constant prayer enabled David Jr. to recover. Besides David Jr., the other children with asthma are newborn Serenity, 8-year-old Daniel and 15-year-old Davon. The others are Dallas, 5, and Damarion, 12.

Both parents quit their corporate jobs – Shawanda as a Nabisco merchandiser and a photo specialist for Walgreen’s, and David as a senior specialist in Chase Bank’s security treasurer’s department – to care for their children. David continues to work as a pastor at Baptist Church Without A Spot or Wrinkle (9322 S. Halsted).

“We work as a team, around the clock,” Shawanda said. “My mom has also been a great help. Once we learned the triggers for each child’s asthma, we have been able to manage it more effectively. You have to be pro-active.”

“If I see a runny nose, I know to start the action plan,” she said.

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.