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Camp makes life more kid-like for young asthmatics


An asthmatic child of a generation ago, Diana Barbour led a sheltered and largely inactive life.

As she watches her two children -- Nikia, 15, and Kenneth, 9 -- gear up for day camp, Ms. Barbour recalls, "I didn't do any of those things. My mother kept me in the house because she thought if I did a lot of rough activities, that would cause an asthma attack."

Nikia and Kenneth are asthmatics, too, but a recent revolution in the treatment of this chronic disease has made their childhoods very different from their mother's.

Doctors now consider fitness and education crucial to controlling asthma. "Camp Superkids" at Loyola College, to which her children will return Thursday, is part of this new wave in asthma care.

Dr. Allen Sosin, chairman of the Consortium of Children's Asthma Camps, recalled the days when doctors discouraged physical activity for asthmatics. "Now we want them to climb mountains, neck with their girlfriends, and do whatever else they want to do," he says.

To accommodate this new need, over 100 camps have sprung up around the country for asthmatic kids. The American Lung Association, which sponsors most of the camps, estimates that 5,000 children will attend asthma camps this summer. Campers pay a small fee.

Dr. Sosin estimates the number of camps has doubled or tripled in the last decade. Each of Maryland's nine relatively small ones will enroll about 30 kids.

Campers can safely swim, play games and learn martial arts, with medical specialists on hand to help handle asthmatic episodes.

But more importantly, the children attend special classes that teach them about the physiology of the disease and how to treat it. They learn breathing exercises, relaxation techniques and self-medication.

Of the 10 million people who have asthma nationwide, 3 million are children.

For reasons that are unclear, the disease is becoming both more common and more deadly -- killing about 4,500 people each year, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation. At particular risk are black and Hispanic inner city children, a situation Dr. Sosin attributes to inconsistent medical care.

The Barbours, who live in Baltimore, rave about Camp Superkids and say it has helped them and others tremendously.

"You can tell a difference from the first day to graduation day. [They are] saying 'Mom, I can do this,' " says Nikia, who's been a counselor there for several years now.

Kenneth remembers frequent visits to the hospital -- six in one year -- when he was younger, and he credits Camp Superkids with helping his recovery.

Now, he plays outfield for a baseball team and swims. "Mostly, I can do things that [non-asthmatic kids] do -- I just have to move a little slow," he says.

A Severna Park 8-year-old, Adam Royster, found similar benefits at an asthma camp at Anne Arundel Community College that's sponsored by North Arundel Hospital.

A severe asthmatic, Adam at one time was having attacks every six weeks. "It sort of hurts my lungs sometimes, and it's hard to breathe, so I know that I'm going to have an attack," he says.

Nonetheless, he swims frequently and plays baseball, basketball, and soccer. His mother, Nancy Royster, says the exercises he learned at the camp helped to control a severe episode last September.

And Adam's advice to other asthmatic kids? "If you have asthma, you should go to asthma camp," he says.

Asthma camps

Here's a list of camps for asthmatic youths around Maryland.

Alleghany County: Frostburg College; call (800) 222-9974 for more information.

Baltimore City: Loyola College, 560-2120, session full.

Baltimore County: Essex Community College, 560-2120, sessions July 8-12 and July 15-19, spaces available, $40.

Calvert County: King's Landing Park, (800) 638-5574, July 8-12, spaces available.

Montgomery and Howard counties: Montgomery College, June 24-28; call 560-2120 for more information.

Prince Georges County: Colony South Hotel, (800) 638-5574, June 24-28, session full.

Talbot County: Calhoun MEBA, (800) 638-5363, June 24-28, $50.

Washington and Frederick counties: Antietam Recreation Center, (800) 222-9974, June 24-28; call for more information.

Wicomico County: Salisbury State University, (800) 638-5363, Aug. 5-9, spaces available, $50.

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